I’m the kind of guy who tends to go against the grain, so it gives me a kind of perverse delight to make the case for a film being worth rather less than it has generally been taken for.
All the same, I still love cinema (if I didn’t, why would I spend so much time writing about it?), and with many of these films, I felt a certain regret that I couldn’t share in the love so many had for them.
So my intent here is to make my case fairly, rather than smashing idols just to hear them break. A thousand assholes are doing that at any given second. Here are my picks for the most overrated films of the year.
- The Birth of a Nation
Who can say how it would’ve gone over if Nate Parker’s past hadn’t come to light? Before that, it seemed bound for awards glory, and even though many of the reviews expressed reservations about aspects of it, they excused them in light of the urgency of the subject matter. But, stepping back from all that and trying to view it as objectively as possible, I found it a dreadfully lacking film, both as history and as drama. As history, you get only the barest idea of who Nat Turner was or how his rebellion played out (and then, only with considerable distortions). But worse, as drama, you get very little feeling for anyone; even Turner is hardly granted more than one dimension. There are a few powerful moments, but given that this was a passion project, frustratingly little of that passion made it onto the screen.
- Captain Fantastic
How you feel about this film probably depends on how you feel about Ben Case. The film makes some token nods to those who oppose him, but they’re otherwise depicted in such a negative fashion as to leave little doubt as to how you’re expected to feel; no doubt the filmmakers hope that the family’s motto “Power to the people. Stick it to the Man” will be widely repeated. But if you’re not moved by Ben’s fight against society, if you think he’s ultimately doing his children more harm than good, then you’re likely to find the film hard to swallow – and if you’re on the fence, the frequent lapses in logic really don’t help. The final act in particular compounds absurdity with absurdity in ways I dare not spoil. As for Viggo Mortensen’s performance, which might earn him an Oscar nomination, it’s solid but not really that outstanding.
- Hacksaw Ridge
The battle scenes are marvelous, as Gibson creates a war film-as-horror film, brutally illustrating the physical cost of war. If the sound mixing and editing are Oscar nominated, it’ll be well deserved (the makeup should also be recognized, but it didn’t make the shortlist). Outside of the battle scenes, however, the film tends to falter a bit; the characters are on the thin side, and at 139 minutes, it’s longer than it needs to be. And the early scenes in Tennessee are frankly pretty bad, with unconvincing period detail and Andrew Garfield trying to be awkwardly charming and coming off as creepy instead. That he might actually get an Oscar nomination (he’s hit most of the precursors thus far) astounds me, yet Hugo Weaving, who’s quite effective in his all-too-brief role as Garfield’s troubled father, has received very little. In the end, it’s still a good film, but it belongs here.
- Hidden Figures
It tells an important true story, and provides a showcase for three talented black actresses – all too rare a prospect even today, and one which is currently making it a box-office smash. It also boasts an engaging original soundtrack (I hope “Runnin'” gets some attention), excellent period detail, and an all-around strong cast. But the writing lets it down, rather. The treatment of racial issues tends to be on-the-nose, and the film at times sacrifices verisimilitude for high drama; a key example is the Jim Parsons character, who’s such an obnoxious prig it undermines our ability to believe he could ever have ascended so high in the NASA ranks. And the story lacks much shape, leaving it to meander for much of its two-hour-plus running time. The acting carries it through – Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner in particular steal the show – but it’s not an unequivocal triumph as a film.
- Kubo and the Two Strings
We’ve got gorgeous, hand-crafted animation, top-notch voice acting, and moments of real emotional power. What we don’t have here is a strong story, and in the final act, it falls completely to pieces. Maybe I need to rewatch it. Few others found the resolution of the story to be so dismaying, so convoluted. But even before then, I wasn’t entirely on board. The script is studded with hacky one-liners which diminish the mythic tone, and the central quest is ultimately rather perfunctory. It’s a truly frustrating film, given how many pains were clearly taken to make it. But sometimes there’s a reason beautifully-crafted, critically-acclaimed films fail at the box-office. And – I hate to say it – sometimes it’s a fair reason. History may vindicate it. I may come around. But for now, I consider one of the bigger disappointments of the year.
- La La Land
This is the big one. The film that won a record 7 Globes and could sweep the Oscars. A film which kicks off with a rather stunning musical number on the L.A. freeway…but if you listen closely, you might realize just how bland the song it’s set to is. None of the songs in the film are that great (“City of Stars” and “Audition” are fine, but probably won’t even make my top 5), and that’s a pretty serious drawback for an original musical. Worse, though, is the script, which takes a trite romance between two rather immature characters (made bearable by Stone and Gosling’s considerable charm) and subjects them to both absurdly contrived good fortune and absurdly contrived strains on their relationship, before wrapping everything up with a fantasy ballet which shamlessly rips off An American in Paris. That film had its problems. But it had much, much better music.
- Love & Friendship
I hate to do this. I really like Whit Stillman – Damsels in Distress was one of the most underrated films of its year. Perhaps it’s because I don’t really like Jane Austen or her style that it all falls a bit flat for me. Objectively, it’s not bad; it’s well-acted, well-written, has good sets and top-notch costumes. And it does one have element I unequivocally enjoyed: Tom Bennett as the unspeakably silly Sir James Martin. The “Churchill” scene is one of the funniest of the year, and it’s all because of how perfectly he plays it. But for the most part, it’s a series of meetings, of comings and goings from one posh setting to another, which all begin to blend together because their purposes are so vague and the stakes are so mild. I’m glad it was a hit, though; hopefully this means there’s plenty more Stillman to come.
- Midnight Special
I get what Nichols was going for here. He was trying to make a film of ambiguities, a film which leaves more than most up to the viewer to decide, in a genre whose entries tend to over-explain to no useful end. But there are so many lacunae here it’s hard to invest in it emotionally, and the stakes are too vague to make it especially exciting. I had high hopes for Jaeden Lieberher’s performance as the mysterious Alton, but Alton is hardly a character; he’s a plot device with little if any depth. Michael Shannon, as his protective father, gives the film what soul it has; it’s been a great year for him, and hopefully the Academy comes through. But this ended up being one of the year’s biggest letdowns for me, failing as it does to fire the imagination or capture the heart.
- The Nice Guys
Honestly, Inherent Vice did this kind of thing better, because it allowed the milieu and the colorful characters to drive the story. Here, Black too often lets the story take over, and it’s not a very good one; the plot device about a pornographic anti-Big Auto screed doesn’t really jibe with the late 70s setting, and the whole thing is wrapped up with a speech from Kim Basinger’s character I still can’t wrap my head around. There’s also a nasty edge to it which diminishes the fun, at least for me. It’s still solid overall; Crowe & Gosling make a fun team, Angourie Rice steals the show as Gosling’s precocious daughter, and the period flavor is well-managed. But from the trailers, I feared it would try too hard to be a quippy cult piece, and my fears were realized. But a lot of people loved it, and why complain about that?
- Sausage Party
The opening song “The Great Beyond” should tell you what to expect; a crass, stereotype-laden satire on religion, and a film endlessly tickled by its central conceit of food which talks (usually profanely) and, eventually, fucks. (I might have been, too…at 13.) It does manage some laughs, at least as long as it sticks to being a kind of warped adult Toy Story with food. But Rogen & Co.’s atheistic message is ham-fisted at best, and the insistence on mining stereotypes and taboos for humor falls flat more often than not. There are some good vocal performances (especially David Krumholtz), and a few genuinely clever conceits (like the piece of gum that was once stuck to Stephen Hawking’s desk), but the less said about the attempted meta-ending, the better. Also, the animators were apparently treated like dogshit, which is more genuinely offensive than anything in the film.
- Hail, Caesar!: I don’t know if it’s really all that highly rated, but it made the NBR’s Top 10 list and it’s started to get a reputation for being underappreciated, so I’ll just say that the Coens kind of dropped the ball with this one. It doesn’t amount to anything, and in this instance that feels less like the point and more like a failure on the part of the writing. It’s amusing, but ultimately forgettable.
- Hell or High Water: It’s a really solid film, to be sure. But I think it’s gotten to a point where people are overpraising it, possibly in reaction to how weak this year has been. Because in a normal year, this might be a solid top 20 film that we didn’t see coming. But this actually might be up for Best Picture. And that, to me, is taking things a little too far. But better this than La La Land.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Taika Waititi’s films have yet to really click with me. I certainly enjoyed this more than What We Do in the Shadows; Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are both quite good, and it’s a fun little ride. But there are people praising the hell out of it, and I just don’t see it. It doesn’t have much in the way of depth, and isn’t all that memorable. But it’s pleasant, and that might be enough.
- Manchester By the Sea: I warmed up to this considerably on the second viewing. Still: it doesn’t quite deserve to be one of the front-runners for Best Picture. The writing is more uneven than most seem to give it credit for being; Lonergan isn’t much better at treating teenagers realistically than anyone else in Hollywood, and the female characters are likewise mostly underwritten. But when it’s just Affleck and Hedges, it soars. So I moved it to the runners-up.
- The Witch: Robert Eggers can certainly direct. If this film proves nothing else, it’s that. But that’s the thing: it doesn’t prove much beyond that. It is, I should say, quite well-acted, and has some truly powerful scenes (like the exorcism sequence – Harvey Scrimshaw does a hell of a job), but there’s not much substance to it, and the final scene, meant to be horrifying, borders on unintentional amusement. (As does the witch’s Halloween-store/romance-novel costume.)