As we've now passed the end of 2012 (which thankfully did not involve any giant CGI earthquakes, floods, arcs, or John Cusacks) it's just about that time of the year when we count down and nominate the year's brightest and best. I myself will be counting down the top cinematographers, performances, scores/soundtracks, and films for the year. But before one can truly appreciate greatness, they must first experience the awful.
Now, people measure "awful" in many different ways, and perhaps I have a different barometer than most. Awful does not mean laughably bad. Awful is not mere incompetence or ignorance of the medium. Awful means painful. It means wretched. It means that I was physically hurt by the experience. You see, any jackass on youtube with a video camera can make a "bad" film. He can possess worse craft or less knowledge of screenwriting technique than any hack in Hollywood. But it takes true talent to achieve "Awful", to hit that sweet spot of the uncanny, into which you the viewer earlier could not comprehend a film venturing. It's a new level of terrible that no Joe Shmo can ever hope to achieve. You see, it takes a truly talented cast and crew, a real budget, and a real kernel of a good idea, terribly executed, to derail a project into the realm of "Awful."
And thus, let us count down the Most Awful Films of 2012.
6.) HOLY MOTORS
Now here's a film that will surely make the top 10 lists of many a pretentious art student or mediocre film critic. Holy Motors seemed from the trailers like it could be a great piece of surrealistic film art, and no doubt many viewers have convinced themselves that it was. But weird for the sake of weird is not art; it's incomprehensible nonsense. In order for metaphor in film to work, it needs to be cohesive. That's rule number one of abstract filmmaking: cohesion and comprehensibility. If you need an essay to decode any meaning whatsoever from your film, then your work is meaningless. And thus, Holy Motors feels like your run of the mill, meaningless film school nonsense that you see in every classroom, only with a budget, truly great cinematography, and a great duo of actors in the leads. But all that talent can't save a half baked film.
Certain sequences on their own begin to compel you, especially those darker and more dramatic moments like the scenes within the limousine. But then another vignette will arrive that in no way thematically links in with what came before, and it will completely thrust you out of the film and aggravate the viewer to no end. By the time we get to the absurd, in your face ending where the main character walks into a house of chimps, which is about as half baked a metaphor as you can get, you'll be wanting to throw something at the screen.
The worst moments of the film though are when a single vignette begins extremely promising, but then by the end completely derails. The first of these moments occurs when our lead character must perform a twisted version of a motion capture shoot. It feels oddly science fiction, and bizarrely dreamlike. And while at first his solo shoot has an engrossing atmosphere, by the end it derails into one of the most disturbing sex scenes I have ever witnessed; it tells us nothing about our main character or the world, and feels more pornographic, and more about the director's S&M sexual fetishes, than anything else.
The second, even more disturbing vignette, starts out quite hilariously as our lead dresses up as a homeless real life leprechaun of sorts, then terrorizes a cemetary whilst eating flowers and scaring away everyday citizens. Then the joke wears thin almost immediately, but continues endlessly. And then everything goes off a cliff as our protagonist kidnaps Eva Mendes (on a location photoshoot), takes her to the sewers, and strips down naked in front of her. All the while, Eva's job is to stand there like a statue and not react. Yet it's quite clear the actress is thinking the entire time "Umm, what did I sign up for?" We stay here for at least 15 minutes of wretched exploitation.
Near the middle of this vignette, Eve Mendes's photographer turns his attention to our lead character and begins snapping photos at frantic speed. The only words he can muster, as he is completely in love with the image before him, are "Weird. So, weird..." I can only imagine that this was the only thought going through the director's head during this production, and that's the problem. He has a great sense of performance, of pacing, of cinematography and sound. His craft is undeniable. But if you care about more meaning in your art than "Weird, so weird" you will see this film for what it really is: beautifully dressed, meaningless trash.
5.) THE HOBBIT (in 24fps)
But those same tactics used in the Hobbit only serve to completely destroy this story. Part of what made Lord of the Rings work so well (and makes any and every movie work so well) was that we cared about the characters deeply. We had Frodo and Sam's struggle at the heart of the movie, their strained friendship, and their suffering through the burden of the One Ring. In the B story we had Aaragorn's struggle to be a King and a leader, to become the man he was born to be, and no longer a wandering, depressed loner. And we had a C story of Merry and Pippen, and their struggle to rise up and be more than they were. Through all the films, we had these character's journeys, and we never lost sight of them.
But The Hobbit has no characters we care about, because Peter Jackson has so bloated the script with fan service to the previous films and inserted appendices material, that he has completely lost sight of Bilbo Baggins' journey. And thus, if you haven't read the book, you have no idea who this guy is or why you should give a shit about him. He almost seems like a background character here, just along for the ride. Meanwhile, Jackson has placed all emphasis on Thorin's journey, which is just a watered down version of Aaragorn's, as he tries to regain his home. Thorin has become the main character. Except...Thorin goes through ZERO emotional growth or struggle whatsoever. He knows who he is, and he is a one dimensional "bad ass" leader. Aaragorn was constantly struggling with his destiny, and had a clear character arc and internal conflict. Thorin has neither, and thus is BORING.
The original The Hobbit was about Bilbo Baggins' growth and struggle as he goes on his first adventure outside the hobbit hole and out into a much larger world. It was a simple tale about a guy who always dreamed of something more than his isolated existence, but never knew how to be more, until one day he is dragged on a great quest. And through that quest, he becomes something different than he was. All focus should be on him, his journey. Not on Thorin slaughtering orcs, not on Gandalf saving the day seven times in a row, not on endless CGI battles, not on portending doom out in Mirkwood (which again feels like watered down LOTR, and extraneous nonsense), but on the main protagonist's journey. That is screenwriting 101, and Peter Jackson just got a big fat F.
Up until just a few years ago, Pixar was the flat out best studio in the industry. They were creating the best movies with the best stories, year after year after year. Numerous filmmakers in both animation and live action pointed to their films and said "That is how you do it. That is a model to learn from." With their last three great films, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Pixar had set a bar that nobody else could hope to match.
And then came Cars 2, and we were all afraid that maybe Pixar was selling out. Maybe it was ending. Maybe Toy Story 3 had just been a fluke. Monster's Inc 2 was on the horizon; oh no. It's over.
But wait! There's hope! Brave, a new original tale, that isn't a sequel, is due this summer! This will be great! This will be awesome!
Except it wasn't. Instead, Brave was far and away Pixar's worst film to date. On first viewing, I walked out before the third act was over. Only once before have I ever walked out on a movie. But I couldn't finish this one.
Brave has no story or character to speak of whatsoever. It has no specifics. It features a generic princess generically not wanting to be a princess, but instead to be free (see Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Mulan, etc). What does she want to be? They never say. We see her riding through the forest, shooting her bow and arrow. Does she want to be an archer? A warrior in an ongoing war? They never say. What are her dreams and aspirations? They never say.
We see her argue with her mother about tradition and how she shouldn't have to be in an arranged marriage. And then she runs away, and meets a witch. The witch claims she can solve our hero's problems by casting a spell. The spell isn't what it seems, and our hero's mother is turned into a bear.
And that's it. That's the whole movie. The mother is a bear. And they need to make her not a bear. I guess this is meant to then comment on how the mother and daughter need to learn to communicate with each other, and we get some of that as they struggle to communicate in English vs Bear-speak. But that's not enough alone to drive even a 90min film. There are no stakes here. We don't have any compelling internal or external conflicts. We don't really have any new lessons or themes that haven't been dealt with in many other, more specific, more compelling movies with better drawn characters. Also of note is that everyone speaks in a Scottish accent. This would be quite nice and interesting if the accent weren't simply used as a substitute for basic character development.
This is yet another film that simply fails at basic storytelling. It fails at being a movie. Character development, clear internal and external conflict, story beats that progress the conflicts and the character development, and enough beats to fill a 90min narrative; the story lacks ALL of these basic elements. If not for the budget, this feels like a student's first attempt at a feature, as they needlessly pad out a 20min short far past its welcome.
After penning two of the worst film experiences I have ever sat through, in a row no less, Damon Lindeloff needs to be banned from ever writing anything ever again. He is the worst hack working in Hollywood today, and yet somehow he's getting scifi gig after gig after gig.
This wasn't that hard to pull off. Do an Alien prequel that explores the "Space Jockey" civilization. It doesn't have to tie directly into the Alien franchise plotwise. But it should have nods, it should feature the Aliens in some way, and it should be the same genre of film. Most of all, it should contain great characters and storytelling, like the first two films in the saga that we all know and love.
But the characters are wildly inconsistent, constantly doing things only to service the plot and seem creepy or weird at the time (Lindeloff's trademark!). David, the Android, acts crazy for no reason. Charlize Theron is a mustache twirling villain for no reason. Two scientists who have a map of the ship they are exploring somehow then get lost in the ship. Those same two scientists act too afraid to enter a scary room, leading them to run off and get lost in the first place. Two minutes later, they come back to the same room, don't act scared at all, and start trying to pet the monsters within it. These awful inconsistencies and holes show up in scene after scene after scene.
The story is an absolute mess and has no clear structure whatsoever. Nor is it clear what tone the film is aiming for. One second there's bright colorful music playing as our characters meditate on the creation of humanity, and the next there's some silly zombie attacking people for no reason other than "Oh wait, we need conflict, right!?" The film doesn't know if it's a prequel or not, as it goes out of its way to not tie into the other films with some elements (the eggs are changed to canisters, the planet is different for no reason, and the face hugger is now a space vagina), but then features half assed nods in other ways (the ship, the company, the sort of kind of but not really xenamorph at the end). The dialogue is downright dreadful and by far the worst of the entire year. The pseudoscience and message of the film are laughable conspiracy theorist nonsense.
Basically, none of the storytelling works. It would take pages to list everything wrong here. And it's a shame, because Michael Fassbender gives an amazing performance with absolutely nothing to work with. Noomi Rapace shows great promise as a lead. Charlize Theron is compelling as always, even in a terribly written role. The music (half of it, at least) is ominous. The cinematography instills dread. But there are no characters or story here. Instead, this feels like horrible fan fiction written over a weekend.
2.) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Fanboys are still trying to convince themselves that this was a good film. Even some film critics are trying to do the same. After all, Christopher Nolan is the savior of blockbuster filmmaking. He shoots on film. He champions 70mm. He uses special effects the way they were meant to be used. He cares about characters and drama in mainstream action filmmaking. His "The Dark Knight" was one of the best films of the last decade.
But this film is dreadful. It completely betrays the characters and story of not just the comics, but more importantly, of the first two films in this franchise that Nolan directed. And it simply does not work as storytelling.
The initial conceit of the film that Bruce Wayne quit being Batman immediately after "The Dark Knight" was a major misstep from the getgo. The point of that ending was the EXACT OPPOSITE: that Bruce Wayne was going to continue being Batman no matter what. And even though he may have to do questionable things, go to dark places, even if he was hated, he would do whatever it took to protect Gotham. He was a Dark Knight, not a hero. And so he would be that watchful protector and guardian of the city, even if the cops hunted him down for being a vigilante, even if people hated him for it.
Moreover, Alfred was ALWAYS A SUPPORTER of Batman. He helped build the suit. He helped build the cave. He helped catch the Joker. He knew that being Batman gave Bruce purpose and drove him. It was twisted, but this was how Bruce could be more than a moping loser who hides from the world in his mansion. But in this film, Alfred cries (to manipulate the audience) about how Bruce can't be Batman. Alfred needs to protect Bruce and get him to live his life again (even though he's let him mope and do nothing for 8 years). And don't even get me started on Gordon...
So right off the bat (hah, get it? Bat), you've betrayed your main protagonists. You can do a time jump to a new dark setting and still have your main characters progress naturally. Battlestar Galactica did it wonderfully. But this film fails at its basic premise, and it has so many more problems as well...
The structure is all over the place. The dialogue is terrible. Characters act completely at the behest of the script, and often their interactions make no sense (Bruce and Catwoman are all over the place). Other characters have no development whatsoever. The pacing is terrible. So many plot points don't hold water whatsoever (from Batman even having a Batcave and having previous injuries which he never got in the previous films, to Alfred somehow knowing enough about the secrets of the League of Shadows to deliver flat exposition to the audience, to batman entering the city when there was no way in, to millions more). So much time is wasted on side characters who are dreadfully dull and offer nothing of substance, and no interesting conflicts (I'm looking at you, Robin). The twist ending completely sucks the life out of the villain and ruins what little character he had. The nuclear bomb plot is so cliche and tedious. The editing is so bad it makes the film feel like a 3hr trailer for a longer, more boring, 20hr film.
It's just a real mess of a film from start to finish. It feels like Nolan only cared about one thing: Messing around with IMAX. Because the IMAX shots truly are breathtaking. And the score is great, even though it never stops and thus contributes to the awful pacing. Or maybe Nolan's gone the way of Lucas, and no longer thinks he needs to work and rework and rework a screenplay before it's ready to shoot. He just thinks anything he comes up with out of his ass is golden.
How do you fix the film? It would require a square one rewrite, starting with the premise.
Make it BATMAN who saved the city from crime, not the Harvey Dent act, but Batman never got credit, and is still hunted by the police. Bruce has a beat up body as a result of his 8 years of fighting crime. Bruce has now lost his purpose since he is beating up lowly thugs instead of higher crime bosses and villains (because all the big guns have been caught. Victory has defeated him), and thus he is sinking into depression and despair. Now he is becoming a recluse, not because his girlfriend died 8 years prior, but because he lacks purpose, and his escape of "Batman" no longer is fulfilling.
Bain, the villain, has nothing to do with the League of Shadows. Get rid of all mentions of them. Get rid of Talia. The strength of "The Dark Knight" was that it continued our character's journey, but it in no way referenced the plot of the previous film. It was its own entity. And this film should have been its own entity, rather than relying on nostalgia and trying to retroactively link the films.
Bain doesn't want to blow up the city. He wants to be its "Salvation." He is an extremist revolutionary. Take the "Tale of Two Cities" idea and run with it full throttle. Bain thinks that by leading an uprising in Gotham, that he can save it. He cares about the lowly and poor because he himself was an outcast in that pit prison, and experienced true despair. He sees the class divide in Gotham as a worldwide symbol of what he himself experienced. And he can be its leader. But much like Robespierre, all goes to hell. He is seen as Gotham's new "White Knight", and some poor souls believe in him and fight for him, until it all goes wrong. Bain takes over and rules Gotham, while Batman is imprisoned in a cell. But the true hero of the people is Batman in the end.
Get rid of Miranda altogether. Get rid of Robin. Build up Gordon's role and don't stick him in a Hospital. Instead of feeling guilt over Harvey Dent, he feels guilt over chasing Batman all these years and never giving him the credit he deserves for saving the city.
NOW you can insert action beats into that opening 40min of dreadful, tedious, depressing boredom, beats of Batman fighting petty crime.
NOW you can even put in an opening montage of sorts if you wanted to, to insert action, but also winks to other super villains in the comics, and show Batman's career.
NOW you have a reason for Alfred to worry about Bruce, and to wish that maybe now he can move on with his life, and get over his parents' and Rachel's deaths.
NOW you can also have action beats, and suspense, setting up Bain's building up of his revolution.
NOW you have a far more compelling villain, with a much more compelling and twisted plot, that is much more three dimensional.
NOW you have a main theme tying your villain and hero together. And now when Batman saves the day in the end, and dies doing it, he can be seen as the hero Gotham always had and deserved. And HE was the savior of the city all along.
NOW you can build up Gordon's role. And you can build up Catwoman's role as well.
Now you can have zero plot holes. You can fix the pacing issues. You can tighten up the film. Rewrite the dialogue. Everything would flow naturally out of fixing that basic first act problem of the premise. There's such a nugget of a great film in here, but it's so horribly executed, with every single scene falling flat, that the result is nothing short of painful. Either Nolan was rushed into production and thought because he's a genius he could pull it off anyway, or he simply did not care.
From a storytelling perspective, this was the worst film of all this year. But...
1.) THE HOBBIT in "HFR 3D"
No film experience was as dreadful as The Hobbit in 48fps. And that's what it is: 48 frames per second. Not "HFR", the half-assed attempt at branding the frame rate as the "new", "cool", "next big thing."
48fps makes it impossible to enjoy this already awful film on any level whatsoever. It's literally unwatchable. You can no longer immerse yourself into the film, because 48fps completely shatters all suspension of disbelief. The framerate looks entirely "real", so much so that you become that much more aware of the artifice of everything else, from the makeup, to the sets, to ESPECIALLY the lighting. Nearly everyone I know who has seen it in 48p said the lighting looked flat and cheap, yet it's the EXACT SAME lighting as in 24p. This is the uncanny valley effect to the extreme.
You see, movies aren't meant to look real. Our conventions with lighting, sets, depth of field, etc look nothing like real life. So to try and make a movie look "more real" completely misses the point. Film is meant to look like a piece of art. And art doesn't look like "real life." That's the point. You are creating something unreal.
The point of a film is to draw you into another space, a dreamlike space, where you give yourself over to the film experience and become completely unaware that you are watching something. You are in the film world, with the characters, experiencing the story with them, through them. This is why character development, and believable characters, compelling story arcs, are the basics of filmmaking. But also, 24fps helps you to enter that world. 24p helps put you into a dreamlike state. It looks more like dreams do, and thus it aids in your zoning out, in giving yourself up to the world of the film. 48fps proponents say that 24p only came about because it was the slowest framerate you could go while still maintaining persistence of motion, and technology at the time back in the past didn't allow for faster framerates. But it's precisely because it is the lowest speed that it has survived this long. That aesthetic puts your mind into a psychological state that makes movie storytelling possible.
And these people seem to forget history. 24p is not a thing of the past. Back when the digital revolution began, the FIRST STEP taken by digital cameras to replicate film, the FIRST step, not the last, was to go from 60i framerate down to 24p. Before HD, before higher stop range, and before RAW, there was 24p, because it was seen as the MOST IMPORTANT element of the film aesthetic.
And when every channel went HD, when everyone could have shot in higher interlaced framerates of 60i, did they? No. They shot 24p even still, and did 3:2 pulldown.
Shooting the Hobbit in 48fps was a colossal misstep, which has put off everyone who is honest with themselves. And I hope to God that this is the last we hear about how this is the supposed future of filmmaking. Because if 48p becomes the next gimmick to try and keep the multiplex alive, I may just stop watching anything new altogether.