In my last post I took a look at some of the best films I watched during 2013. This time around I’m going to go through the very worst of the 131 films I watched over the last 12 months. Some were let-downs, some were wasted opportunities, whilst some were just downright awful.
Welcome to part two of ‘The Freds’
Watching a really terrible movie can be quite difficult unless you are at the cinema or watching the premiere of something made recently. This is not because modern films are rubbish, it’s because the majority of truly awful or forgettable films made more than 10 or 20 years ago don’t get a home media release or a TV slot for the very reason that they are so bad. Nevertheless, there was a few films that I watched last year that can be described as one-star affairs.
It was a day or two after New Year and my then fiancée (and the current Mrs. Sullivan) and I settled down to watch ‘Half Light‘ (2006), a supernatural thriller set in Britain and a vehicle for the plummeting star Demi Moore. With poor performances, truly nonsensical plot twists, and story lines that appeared, went nowhere, and then disappeared unresolved this is an unholy mess of a film. A lot of these supernatural shockers are pretty lacklustre, but most of them manage to squeeze one or two jumps out of me. The only way ‘Half Light’ would make anyone jump is if they were jumping for the remote to switch it off.
The universally derided ‘Cutthroat Island‘ (1995) marked the stalling point of the career of another 90s sex symbol, Geena Davis. It’s hard to believe, given the financial and critical disaster this film was, that Disney dared to make the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies less than 10 years later. Like ‘Half Light’ the films story line is virtually incomprehensible and with a dearth of acting talent on show there is nothing to save it.
Set in Hollywood’s view of ‘Oireland’, the pathetic rom-com ‘Leap Year‘ (2010) was another stinker. The likable Amy Adams can do nothing to rescue the film, especially considering the startling lack of chemistry she shares with Matthew Goode, who spends most of his time drowning under an Irish accent worthy of ‘Far and Away’. The film is also incredibly boring with one contrived, but undramatic situation following another. 2010 also gave us cheapo animation ‘Monster House‘ which is surely one of the ugliest films ever made. Neither creepy, funny nor charming, ‘Monster House’ goes to show that what the likes of Pixar make look easy is anything but.
On a much more serious and darker note, I decided to watch one of the Nazi regimes most notorious productions this year. ‘The Eternal Jew‘ (1940) sets itself up as a documentary but facts are impossible to find in this vile and disturbing piece of anti-Semitic propaganda.
And the Winner Is…:
‘The Eternal Jew’ is easily one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen but it does hold a certain historical fascination. This is a tough choice between ‘Leap Year’ and ‘Half Light‘ but the Demi Moore thriller wins as ‘Leap Year’s weak plot at least made some sort of sense.
Most Disappointing Film
Although ‘Secret Agent‘ (1936) has never been spoken of as one of Hitchcock’s great achievements, the directors record still meant I had high hopes for the film, especially considering it was made in the wake of the superb ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935). It’s not a terrible film, but it’s quite dull and lacks the great man’s usual skill in keeping viewers on the edge of their seat. John Gielgud is also badly miscast as the hero.
45 years later Gielgud popped up (and won an Oscar) for the highly regarded comedy ‘Arthur‘ (1981). Dudley Moore is the eponymous hero, a permanently drunk millionaire who risks his fortune for love. Petty-thief Liza Minnelli is the object of his affections and Gielgud is Moore’s redoubtable valet. Where the film’s big reputation comes from is a mystery to me. It had good moments, most of them provided by Gielgud, and Minnelli was still a charming screen presence at this point. The big problem is Moore. He’s really, really bad at playing a drunk and he’s just not funny when he tries. Unfortunately, he has to try for 70% of the movie.
As a big Orson Welles fan I was delighted when the opportunity to see ‘F for Fake‘ (1973) presented itself. There are sections of this documentary about frauds and forgeries that are compelling, but they are too few and far between and at least half the film is either dated, dull, or self-indulgent.
Finally, both ‘Frozen‘ (2013) and ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs‘ (2009) were disappointing animated efforts. ‘Frozen’ was at least enjoyable enough that I would watch it again but ‘CWaCoM’ felt as if it was trying too hard for its few laughs.
And the Winner Is…:
It’s not the worst film of the five listed, but given its reputation as a comedy classic, ‘Arthur‘ was the biggest let-down of last year.
Most Peculiar Movie
There were three films I watched last year that left me feeling more than a little confused for reasons other than a confusing plot. ‘Cloud Atlas‘ (2012), with its cross-cutting between seven different stories across several centuries, certainly had that, but it was the sight of actors such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant playing multiple roles, many of which they were totally unsuitable for, that left me bemused. Hanks ‘bettered’ Matthew Goode in the ‘Worst Irish Accent‘ stakes with a turn as a violent gangster-turned-author in one story, Berry turned up as a white woman in another, and Grant played both an oriental villain and a primitive tribe leader at various stages. This film proved that David Mitchell’s novel was virtually unfilmable as it swung wildly between situation comedy, brutal drama, and nightmarish sci-fi.
More straight forward was the musical ‘Orchestra Wives‘ (1942), the second of only two films to feature Glenn Miller in a prominent acting role. The story concerns the difficulties and destructive jealousies of those married to a touring orchestra, but every single character was in some way or another repulsive. The women were bitches and the men, including Miller but especially romantic lead George Montgomery, were either total bastards or idiots. I’m all for a film confounding expectations by going against the template of the genre, but for a wartime American musical to have no hero or heroine worthy of the name was a step too far, and one I believe to be an accident, not designed.
With a plot similar to the classic ‘The Searchers’ (1956), director John Ford at the helm, and leading men of the calibre of James Stewart and Richard Widmark, ‘Two Rode Together‘ (1961) should have worked well. However, the turgid, old-hat comedy moments that Ford occasionally dotted his films with was so poor that is nullified the films serious story about white families seeking but ultimately disowning relations kidnapped by native American tribes.
And the Winner Is…:
‘Cloud Atlas’ get a pass here as it was at least ambitious in what it attempted. ‘Orchestra Wives’ and ‘Two Rode Together’ were just misguided. I think I will go with ‘Two Rode Together‘ as ‘The Searchers’ showed five years earlier what could have been achieved with more care and attention.
Finally, I am rewarding the films that were so bad they were good. ‘12+1‘ (1969) is based on the same novel as Mel Brooks’ more famous ‘Twelve Chairs’ (1970) but updates the story to the 1960s. It’s probably slightly too good to be included in this section and showcased the comic talent of tragic beauty Sharon Tate to great effect. Much more of a surprise was another comedy, the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle ‘The Boys in Blue‘. In no way is this a good movie, but it had the feel of one of the 1970s ‘Carry On…’ movies which are mostly enjoyable even when they’re terrible.
‘The Final Countdown‘ (1980) posed the moral question of whether it would be right to interfere in the events of Pearl Harbour if you found yourself propelled through a portal into the past. It’s woeful special effects (even for the era) and predictable finale didn’t stop me from enjoying the film which was undoubtedly helped by the presence of Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen.
Equally fantastical is the story of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon‘ which had been brought to the screen in 1937 by Frank Capra. That straight version is very good, but in 1973 it was brought back to the big screen by Ross Hunter as a sprawling and colorful musical with an all-star cast, none of whom could sing or dance. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote the songs, but their relationship was close to an end at the time and it shows in David’s dreadful lyrics (the tunes are alright). Peter Finch looks uncomfortable, Olivia Hussey is visibly pregnant (her character is not supposed to be), and George Kennedy and Michael York don’t even get to try any musical numbers. Liv Ullman, Bobby Van and Sally Kellerman at least tried to inject some energy into proceedings but they are fighting a losing battle. Oh, and John Gielgud’s back again, playing a Chinese man, which should tell you everything you need to know about the film’s reliance on star names over suitability for the roles they play.
And the Winner Is…:
‘Lost Horizon‘ – no contest. Absolutely terrible and way too long, but I know I will go back again and again.
Sad **** that I am, I kept a record of all the films I watched last year. In 2013 I watched a total of 131 movies, from ‘Half Light’ (2006) in the early days of January to ‘Carry On Again, Doctor’ (1969) just before the year came to a close. The films covered a fairly wide range of genres and topics, though whilst the films came from a large span of time [earliest: ‘Rescued by Rover‘ (1905); latest: ‘Frozen’ (2013)], there was not enough variety in terms of their country of origin. Nevertheless, as we are now in 2014 I thought I’d look back and the great, the good, and the ghastly among them.
I made a conscious effort last year to try to watch films I had never seen before, or had not seen for a number of years over familiar choices that I have returned to again and again. To that end ‘The Freds’ will be awarded to films that I watched for the first time in 2013, or occasionally to films that I re-watched after a long period of time had passed (more than five years). Also, whilst I have picked out some specific genres for special focus, I haven’t covered everything. They aren’t real awards, you know?
Without further ado, let’s have look at the highlights, lowlights, and down-right-shites that graced my retinas in 2013.
Best Film of 2013
The first award is for films released in the UK in 2013 and, overall, it’s an underwhelming selection. Summer’s big blockbuster ‘Man of Steel‘ (2013) was terrible and Disney’s Christmas offering ‘Frozen‘ was jolly, but generally disappointing. Both films suffered from the lack of screen time afforded to their most interesting or likable characters (Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent in ‘MoS’ and Olaf the snowman in ‘Frozen’). ‘The Conjuring‘ (2013) was built up as the horror film that avoided all the clichés but seemed to my mind to follow pretty much every one in the book.
Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, both fine actors, were miscast as ‘Burton and Taylor‘ (2013), and whilst the subject matter of ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer‘ (2013) was undoubtedly fascinating, it is a straight choice between Pixar sequel ‘Monsters University‘ (2013) and warbling epic ‘Les Miserables‘ (2012).
And the Winner Is…:
‘Monsters University’ was good fun, but despite a few distinctly average vocal performances, ‘Les Miserables‘ was genuinely impressive, both in how it looked and how much genuine emotion was wrung from the story. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks were good, but Hugh Jackman was particularly affecting as Jean Valjean. I cried buckets in the cinema, and for once it wasn’t due to the price of the snacks.
Best Film I’d Not Seen Before
A little different to the above, as this award includes films from every decade as long as the first time I watched it was in 2013. There was five that stood out in particular.
After years of my sister badgering me, I finally got around to watching the superb ‘The Lives of Other‘ (2006), a gripping look at life in East Germany in era of the Stasi. Such a glowing recommendation often leads to disappointment, but ‘The Lives of Others’ actually exceeded expectations, mainly thanks to Ulrich Muhe’s perfect central performance.
‘The Name of the Rose‘ (1986) was another film with a lot to live up to, given that the book it is based on instantly became on of my favourites when I read it. The film truncated much of what makes the book such a thought-provoking pleasure, but it is a tremendous thriller with excellent performances from its cast.
More recent fare is represented by Tim Burton’s wonderful homage to (amongst others) the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, ‘Frankenweenie‘ (2012). Any horror movie fans are urged to check out this beautifully animated tale of one boy and his dog. ‘Kick-Ass‘ (2010) had a sequel released this summer which spurred me to seek out the highly rated original. Five minutes in I was wondering if it was going to be another ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004), but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It drew you in by masquerading as a comedy about a loser-vigilante, a foul-mouthed child, and her wacko father, but then things took a much darker turn. It’s an exhilarating, breathless and, at times, heart-wrenching action movie that I can’t wait to watch again.
At the other end of the age scale was the Astaire-Rogers musical ‘Shall We Dance‘ (1937). Normally rated as one of the teams lesser vehicles, I thought it was charming, funny, and contained excellent musical numbers.
And the Winner Is…:
It’s a tough call but ‘The Lives of Others‘ just holds off ‘Kick-Ass’ to take the prize.
Best Revisited Film
Now for the best film I’d seen before, but re-watched after years. There were only three genuinely brilliant films that qualified and they couldn’t be more different.
The classic British documentary short ‘Night Mail‘ (1936) remains a fascinating snapshot of the past, whilst Alfred’s Hitchcock’s Nazis-in-hiding thriller ‘Notorious‘ (1946) was even better than I had remembered it to be. The 1954 western ‘Vera Cruz‘ boasts two leading men on the top of their game in Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Lancaster in particular raises this above the mass of westerns produced by Hollywood’s studio system with a performance that is part snake, part hyena, and a whole lot of startlingly white teeth.
And the Winner Is…:
Robert Aldrich is not considered one of the masters of the genre, but none of the John Ford westerns I have seen are as good as ‘Vera Cruz‘. It’s my favourite example of the genre in its classic form.
Most Surprisingly Good
‘Kick-Ass‘ nearly qualified for this due to its dark elements which I did not expect, but if we are talking about films I expected to be rubbish that turned out to be pretty decent it is between two romantic comedies.
‘The Accidental Husband‘ (2008) sees Uma Thurman in comedy mode, which is rarely a good thing. Opposite her are Jeffrey Dean Morgan (no, me neither) and Colin Firth in full ‘British actor trying to break Hollywood’ mode. The plot is preposterous and it tails off badly about half way through. And yet, for sheer laughs, it was one of the funniest films I watched last year. It’s not ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ (1989), but it’s not ‘Gigli’ (2003) either.
On paper, ‘The Break Up‘ (2006) looks terrible. Jennifer Aniston, who has never appeared in a good movie, is the female lead, whilst the male lead is Vince Vaughan. What’s more, he spends a lot of time doing that dead-pan, fast talk that crops up in every V.V. movie (except when he played Norman Bates… yes, he really did play him). It really shouldn’t work, but it’s one of those rare occasions where all the wrong elements somehow come together to make a half-decent film. It’s rejection of the rom-com’s ultimate cliché (which I won’t give away here) also went a long way to making me quite like the film.
And the Winner Is…:
‘The Accidental Husband’ is probably a better film, but I really thought I would hate ‘The Break Up‘ and ended up liking it so it wins on points.
I took in a fair few documentaries in 2013 and the best was unquestionably ‘The Celluloid Closet‘ (1995). However, as I’ve seen that a number of times we have to ignore it [ditto ‘Bowling for Columbine‘ (2002)]. That left ‘Night Mail‘ as the winner.
However, if we look at those documentaries I’d never seen at all before last year it was a pretty mixed bag. ‘Brother’s Keeper‘ (1992) was extremely dull and we will hear more about the disappointment of watching ‘F for Fake‘ (1973) in part two of this post. The ‘Pussy Riot‘ documentary deserves a mention as one of the better ones, as does ‘The Imposter‘ (2012).
It was ‘The Bridge‘ (2006) that was the best of them. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted as it contains footage of people throwing themselves to their deaths from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This also makes it a morally questionable project especially when you consider their friends and families who were interviewed so movingly for the film were not aware the film makers had footage of their loved ones committing suicide. If you can take those interviews in isolation, though, it’s a very interesting attempt to try to understand what drives people to such a drastic measure.
Yet more chills as the unremittingly bleak yet beautiful ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘ (1988) takes this one hands down over ‘Monsters University‘, ‘Brave‘ (2012) and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ (1994) [once you discount ‘Up‘ (2009) and ‘Wall-E‘ (2008) which I’ve seen twice each in a little over three years]. This unforgiving tale of two children trying to survive after their parents are killed in an American bomb attack on Kobe in WWII doesn’t pull any of its considerable punches and shows that animated movies are definitely not just for children.
Historical interest drew me to ‘Rescued by Rover‘ (1905) as it was the first British movie with a plot line (no prizes for guessing it’s about a heroic canine) but if you ignore the cultural significance of the movie, it’s not very good. Likewise, two of the three W.C. Fields shorts I watched this year were close to worthless [‘The Golf Specialist‘ (1930) and ‘The Fatal Glass of Beer‘ (1933)]. ‘The Pharmacist‘ (1933), however, was very funny and gained Fields’ something of a reprieve in my eyes (I didn’t care for either of the two feature films starring him I’d seen either).
‘The Blue Umbrella‘ (2013) was a charming Pixar short that preceded ‘Monsters University’ in the cinema, but none of these could hold a candle to a French short that inspired ‘The Blue Umbrella’, the wonderful ‘The Red Balloon‘ (1956). This tale of a young boy and his mystically obedient, playful, pet-like balloon is surely one of the all-time great fantasy movies – as surreal and it is tragic, and as tragic as it is heart-warming. I urge you to seek it out if you have never seen it.
For all ‘Les Miserables’ quality and epic visual style, the 1936 version of ‘Show Boat‘ was the best musical I saw last year. Films like ‘Show Boat’, featuring black characters that can seem incredibly stereotyped, can be an awkward watch, but the film probably stays just the right side of eye-ball-rolling, Mammy-lamenting racism. The songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein are terrific, especially Paul Robeson’s seminal version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ and Helen Morgan’s incredible rendition of ‘Bill’, and despite couple of wooden performances it knocks spots off the 1951 MGM version.
Paul Robeson also featured in ‘The Proud Valley‘ (1940), a lovely British movie set in a Welsh mining village and another American musical legend, Glenn Miller, popped up in ‘Sun Valley Serenade‘ (1941). It was one of only two feature films to star the great trombonist and band leader and his band, and whilst the plot was pretty flimsy it is still worth checking out, if only for the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo‘ sequence.
So there is a round-up of the best of 2013’s viewing. Please check back later in the week as I ‘reward’ the very worst films I watch last year.