10. Shutter Island
I think “Shutter Island” mainly gets its praise because it’s a Scorsese movie starring DiCaprio and Ruffalo. When you hear Scorsese’s name, you immediately assume you’re about to watch one of the highest quality pictures released that year, or even that decade. Sometimes our preconceptions can make us ignorant to the truth in front of our eyes – the truth is, “Shutter Island” is a fine film to look at but a failure story-wise. DiCaprio and Ruffalo turn in fine performances, but the script is a mess and the imagery is confusing at best. The story is thin and drags on for an indulgent length of 138 minutes. Modeled on countless other psycho mysteries and haunted house stories, “Shutter Island” doesn’t feel like it brings anything new to the suspense or horror genres. Scorsese’s grasp of camera movement and creating atmosphere may be enough to entertain some, but as we weave our way through an overly-complex web involving Nazis, infanticide, PTSD, and psychopharmacology, you can’t help but think that all the technical work is a shiny gloss to cover all the rubbish that hides underneath. There are countless MacGuffins and empty allegories at every turn. The final twist just makes it all feel like a giant waste of time.
9. The Hateful Eight
“The Hateful Eight” may not be one of Tarantino’s more highly regarded works, but fans of the director will still defend it following any minor criticism, and will comment on how it’s grown on them more over the years. On paper, “The Hateful Eight” seems like a film I might really enjoy. And I will admit, I think there’s a decent 90 minute movie in this three hour monstrosity. Tarantino has said himself that he has trouble cutting out a lot of the dialogue scenes in his movies. He pens the conversations on paper and just can’t bring himself to cut out any of his “ingenious” ideas out of the final product. He needs a leash on him – every great artist has had someone behind them criticizing their work or telling them “no” when they get too carried away. It takes 40 minutes until we finally arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, at which point the film basically just turns into a more indulgent version of “Reservoir Dogs.”
The film takes place in the aftermath of the Civil War, and for the entire runtime it has underpinning it an awareness of racial politics. Tarantino said that he didn’t set out to write about racial disharmony, but it undeniably became a major theme in his script during the draft process. There are certainly speeches that characters make that address racial politics, and that’s all well and good, but as with an Tarantino film, any cultural/political sentiment remains utterly secondary to sensationalism. What Tarantino is really interested in is the power of cinema, the power of word play, and the dark humor of exploitation. Per usual, genuine emotion is put aside for blood splattering and surface level character exploration. He borrows elements from other, better films and makes them his own. I’ve never felt invested in a character written by Tarantino, and I doubt I ever will. The performances, as good as they may be, are completely effectless due to the sloppy writing. I’ve grown tired of Tarantino’s self-indulgent projects – someone needs to reign him in.
8. The Hobbit Trilogy
Just thinking about “An Unexpected Journey” makes me want to take an unexpected nap. The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was a monumental piece of filmmaking, but the “Hobbit” trilogy was just a monumental money grab. The 48 frames per second was a stupid idea – it made everything look completely hyper realistic and pulled me out of the films on multiple occasions. Everything looked like it was a part of some behind the scenes footage and it was very distracting. So much time is spent on world building that there’s hardly any meat to the story. We spend so much time listening to these characters babble on about food or songs or furniture or myths, all of which I couldn’t care less about. There’s absolutely no tension in any of the films because they’re all far too long. “An Unexpected Journey” ends at the mid-point of the book it’s based on, and then we’ve got two more drawn out, indulgent films to get to. The theatrical cuts feel like they could be the extended editions. “The Hobbit” did not need three movies to flesh out a 310 page book that has most of its pages filled with adjectives describing the cutlery at the tables in the Shire. “The Hobbit” may have wanted to be “The Lord of the Rings” by design, but in execution it was far from the same quality.
7. The Revenant
“The Revenant” is the most miserable cinematic experience I have ever had. From a technical standpoint, the film is magnificent. The cinematography is immaculate and creates one of the most immersive experiences I have ever had in a theatre. The visual effects are seamless. Every actor on screen chews up the scenery. DiCaprio gives the most committed performance of his career and finally won an Oscar for his efforts. Was it really necessary to make him endure all of this for a little golden statue? Did he really eat raw bison liver just to “make it look real?” I still don’t believe it. It’s not even acting at that point. There doesn’t seem to be much acting going on at all in “The Revenant.” The conditions they were shooting in were brutal, and the experience of watching it is incredibly glum. One of the hardest things to pull off as a filmmaker is a beautiful story about human suffering. Innaritu revisits the misery of “Babel” in “The Revenant” but leaves out the levity of “Birdman.” The beautiful and organic backdrop of nature paired with the bloodlust and suffering of humanity is an obvious dichotomy that grows tiring over the course of 150 minutes. The film is so relentless in making us wallow in DiCaprio’s suffering that the experience just becomes completely unpleasant. It feels like an abusive parent beating their child down for hours on end without any pause. Innaritu tried so hard to make us feel so bad about the whole revenge tale that I hated it from start to finish. There’s nothing redeeming about anyone or anything in this entire story. I had no desire to watch it a second time and still don’t.
I cannot for the life of me understand what makes “Drive” such a masterpiece in many people’s eyes. Gosling plays the same character he always does – a stoic, emotionally distant loner who resorts to violence in a time of crisis. The violence is gratuitous and exploitative. The whole experience is grim, brutal, and makes me feel icky about human nature. Apparently people thought that “Drive” was going to be an indie version of the Fast and Furious films, but it couldn’t have been farther from that. I knew better than that walking in, but I was not prepared for the vicious nature of the violence and the complete lack of empathy I would feel for any of the characters. “Drive” wants to be a noir in the style of classic Hollywood heist films, but with an exploitative edge. Nicholas Winding Refn is known for his hard hitting violence and unpleasant B-type films, and I must say I have never been a fan. To each their own, but his films are some of the rare experiences in which I have a hard time stomaching what I see on screen. The opening sequence is at least objectively good – Refn creates a great sense of atmosphere and tension, and Gosling makes it clear in his first few minutes that his character is an existential hero defined entirely by his behavior. “Drive” owes an awful lot to “Taxi Driver,” but Refn doesn’t nearly have the level of craft or insight into human nature that Scorsese has. For me, “Drive” is just an average B-movie, which is all I believe Refn really wanted it to be anyway.
My heart sunk when “Moonlight” won Best Picture over “La La Land.” That’s not to say “Moonlight” isn’t a fine film or was undeserving of the award, but the amount of praise it received and continues to receive slightly baffles me. Let me get the good things out of the way first. For starters, the performances are, across the board, excellent. Throughout the course of the film, we follow three different actors portraying the same character as he grows from boy to man. It’s an absolute triumph how all three of the performances are so consistent with each other. The sense of atmosphere is also expertly created. The production design is top notch, and the cinematography creates a sense of intimacy that beautifully mirrors the relationship between the two lead characters. My biggest issue with “Moonlight” is that the story feels horribly disjointed. It’s broken up in vignettes that are undeniably emotionally powerful, but seem to omit details that are pertinent to the story as a whole. There’s clearly a lot that goes on in these characters’ lives between each chapter, and in the end I felt robbed of having a full experience with them.
The camerawork is a bit too shaky at times, and the editing is quite choppy. Some of the artistic choices came across as pretentious. I wasn’t getting the emotional reaction I should have because I was distracted by these story and technical elements. I also found it difficult to empathize with some of the characters, particularly Chiron’s mother. She was just so horrifically abusive and unlikable. Chiron himself ends up being involved in the drug business when as a boy he seemed to detest anyone in that life. Was that really the only choice he could have made as an adult? The film also ends abruptly without a definitive resolution. Normally I’m a fan of ambiguous endings, but in this case I felt like I needed a cathartic release. “Moonlight” was a bit of a disappointing experience for me, but for many others it was one of the most visceral and timely experiences of the decade.
4. Silver Linings Playbook
David O. Russell’s rom-com drama received eight Oscar nominations and thankfully won only one for Jennifer Lawrence. Much of the success of the film was thanks to the strength of its actors, who are all pretty exceptional here. The script is weak at best, the dialogue is clunky, and the film has a confusing tone overall. The movie spends a lot of time at the beginning setting up Bradley Cooper’s damaged and scarred character with emphasis on him being the only central character here to be invested in. The tone at the beginning is dark and depressing, but that quickly turns into darkly comedic and quirky when Lawrence shows up. When Lawrence enters Cooper’s life, the rest of the film is dedicated to examining their relationship and their inabilities to open up and trust one another. What could have been a funny dark comedy with some profound insight into mental illness ended up trying to be a Hallmark film with a final dance number and a bunch of smiling faces. Instead of Cooper and Lawrence working past their mistrust and self-acceptance issues, they just decide that they’re both quirky and messed up, and that it’s less lonely to be that way together. The whole experience is underwhelming, lacking conviction, and frankly quite boring.
3. Django Unchained
Oh boy, I can’t wait to get a bunch of flack for this one. “What? WHAT? You put DJANGO on here? I JUST WATCHED THAT MOVIE ON NETFLIX, IT WAS GREAT! YOU JUST CAN’T STOMACH HOW IT REALLY WAS BACK THEN!” Ok, first off, calling a Tarantino film historically accurate in any way is an insult to history. And if you want to watch a film that actually explores the horrors of slavery, then I would suggest watching “12 Years a Slave.” “Django” is just another exploitation film from Tarantino that has all of the cliches we’ve come to see in all of his other works over the past couple of decades.
Tarantino is a frustrating director for me because I can see how much talent he has, yet I rarely enjoy one of his works. They’re consistently overly-indulgent, far too long, and all of the characters just talk like him. He can’t restrain himself from injecting an excessive amount of exploitative violence that never seems to have any consequence to the plot, and he can’t craft a single character that I will ever feel emotionally invested in to save his life. He’s always been callous with his characters, and that’s fine, so long as he doesn’t expect me to stay engrossed for the better part of three hours listening to the same brand of dialogue that I can find in any one of his projects. Or for that matter, watch him continue to borrow elements from other spaghetti westerns and 60’s era cinema that are far better than anything in “Django Unchained.” He’s still playing with the same set of toys he started out with, only he’s no longer constrained by time or budget, and it’s grown tiring. Walking in to the theatre, you can literally smell his over-inflated ego before the film even starts to play. On the press circuit, he had the nerve to say that “Django” would begin the conversation in America about the horrors of slavery. Umm…I’m pretty sure that conversation began over 200 years ago, Quentin. Get off whatever you’re smoking, man.
So yes, Tarantino is basically the living incarnation of a joke that goes on for too long and stops being funny. Almost every one of his movies are like that for me. Now, for some of the good stuff – I do really enjoy Samuel L. Jackson’s and Jaimie Foxx’s performances. Waltz is delightful, but plays basically the same type of character he played in “Inglourious Basterds.” There are funny moments, and there are moments that surprised me, but as a whole, “Django” is just full of Tarantino cliches, and it goes on for far too long. DiCaprio pulls off some “Revenant” style acting by breaking a glass with his bare hand and acting through the pain. A bleeding hand alone doesn’t make a film great, and I’m afraid “Django” wore out its welcome for me around the 100 minute mark. It might have been a really enjoyable movie had it been about that length.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
How many f*cking f*cks do you need in a f*cking movie to make it f*cking good? Apparently 506 exactly, or roughly 2.81 f*cks per minute. F*ck me!
Truth be told, you don’t need any uses of the f-word to make a film good or funny, but Jordan Belfort and Martin Scorsese would probably disagree. The film’s biggest problem doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of cursing though. Let’s get the good things out of the way first. DiCaprio gives possibly a career best performance here. He’s full-on, full-throttle, over-the-top, but also quite nuanced at times. We all know just how versatile of an actor he is. Jonah Hill shows off his own versatility in the role of Donnie (Jordan’s right-hand man), and he’s instantly memorable and hilarious in many of his scenes. Scorsese crafts some genuinely funny slapstick moments throughout the course of the runtime, and the editing is superbly done to work with the tone of the film. Clearly Scorsese and Schoonmaker cannot be constrained by any genre. Sadly though…that’s where the good ends.
Much of the criticism of “The Wolf of Wall Street” was directed at how it seemed to glamorize the lifestyle that it depicted, but Scorsese insisted that he attempted to convey the exact opposite. We’re supposed to be disgusted at what’s going on onscreen, and many audience members were. While I don’t doubt that there were fraternity brothers who were inspired by the ecstasy conveyed onscreen, for the most part people walked away disgusted at what they had just seen. That being said, was it necessary for the film to revel in such behavior for so long? How many orgy scenes or drug scenes did we really need to get the message? And where do we draw the line with it being funny and being abhorrent behavior?
I hated Jordan Belfort from the out, and I hated him all the way to the end. I couldn’t have cared less what happened to him; all I wanted to see was him going to jail. It’s hard to be dramatically interested in a character that you hate, especially for an indulgent length of three hours. There were reports that Scorsese wrestled to get the length down to three hours, which I find hard to believe. Frankly, it could have easily lost at least another half hour. And what it could have easily lost is yet another of the endless scenes of partying and having orgies and taking dangerous drugs. Belfort says that his book (and the film) are based on real-life occurrences, but it’s hard to believe that the frequency of ludicrous behavior actually took place while he was running a criminal company. But even if his life was like that, we don’t need to revel in the constant drug-taking and prostitution and partying that took place to get across that it’s not an enviable lifestyle. Someone as talented as Scorsese should be able to get his point across without employing cheap antics like that.
On top of that, the film never actually takes a position on the lifestyle it’s portraying. Nor does it ever offer any entry into actually caring about the central character. It’s fine that it wants to present the events and let us decide for ourselves, but it’s pretty obvious what we’re going to decide about Belfort. What the film really makes me ask is, “What was the point of this going on for so long? Was it really to feel disgusted, or just because this is Scorsese’s baby, he couldn’t cut out sequences he thought were funny? And how is the latter any different than how Belfort felt about it himself?”
Just because the protagonist of the story is a chauvinist fool doesn’t mean the director has to fall in line with that. Watching “The Wolf of Wall Street” is like watching a three hour version of the sexual rituals in “Eyes Wide Shut,” where you’re just constantly wondering how much longer all of this crap is going to go on for. Though the protagonist is ill-disciplined, that doesn’t mean that the film also has to be ill-disciplined. It’s a chauvinist story with chauvinist characters told through the eyes of a male chauvinist, and there’s never any contrast to this perspective. And that’s my biggest problem with “The Wolf of Wall Street.” On top of that, the film leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth following a Belfort cameo and the very final scene. Belfort is released out of prison and becomes a motivational speaker. Great, an ex-white-collar felon teaching a class on how to make the sell. While we’re at it, why don’t we get Gordon Gekko to sub for the professor while he’s on sabbatical?
- The Master
Cinephiles around the world worship at the altar of Paul Thomas Anderson. I have a love-hate relationship with the director. He clearly has an eye that can hardly be matched in the industry. His films are consistently visually magnificent, but his stories tend to be a bit thin and far too drawn out. The characters are often difficult to relate to, and the longer for which the film drags on, the harder it is to stay engaged. Films like “There Will Be Blood” and “Phantom Thread” are phenomenally well written, acted, and directed, but films like “Inherent Vice” and “The Master” leave me feeling cold and empty. Anderson has reportedly said that “The Master” is his favorite of his own films, and I cannot for the life of me understand why. Cinephiles and critics around the world endlessly praise every aspect of this movie, yet when I watched it, I felt as lost as the characters in the story. “The Master” was on virtually every reputable film critic’s and blogger’s Top Ten List of the Decade, but it was nowhere to be found in my Top 70. Nor would it be found in my Top 100. Nor in my Top 1,000 probably. “The Master” was a cold, empty experience that, when I reached out my hand to find some amount of substance, I came back with nothing more than thin air.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a traumatized World War II veteran (Freddie Quell) who is struggling to adjust to post-war society and is prone to erratic and violent behavior. He creates moonshine out of paint thinner. He seems to have no moral compass and no direction in life. Basically, he’s a crackpot who’s looking for someone with charisma to guide him. Enter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is a crackpot in his own right. Dodd is a cult leader, and he tells Freddie that they have met before in the past but cannot recall when. Dodd claims to be an established philosopher and subjects Freddie to an exercise called “Processing,” during which Dodd convinces Freddie to expose certain abhorrent past (and private) experiences in his life. Freddie decides to travel with Dodd and assist in spreading Dodd’s teachings to fellow impressionable people.
The biggest problem with “The Master” is that it starts and ends in the same place. Not literally the same point in time – rather, the characters never undergo any sort of growth or change. Over the course of an indulgent length of 150 minutes, Freddie and Dodd undergo trials and tribulations that seem to lead to nowhere. They offer no enlightenment as to the appeal of Dodd’s cult, the imbalance in Freddie’s mind, or the history of cultism in post-WWII America. Freddie is just as lost at the end as he is in the beginning. Dodd is just as criminal in his behavior as he is at the start. Much like my experience with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s difficult to spend so much time with characters you intensely dislike. At least there was some humor in “The Wolf of Wall Street” though. “The Master” seems to be devoid of anything that would make it enjoyable. There’s more the two films share in common though, and that’s a lack of direction. “The Wolf of Wall Street” rambles on with endless orgies, drug scenes, and partying, while “The Master” meanders on with Freddie experiencing bouts of violent behavior and trying to let in Dodd’s impressionable teachings. It all seems so pointless and not in the least bit entertaining, and Dodd’s teachings are all so incredibly nonsensical.
The film itself is incredibly well crafted and well acted, but there’s nothing rewarding about the experience. People’s reasons for liking “The Master” seem to be as enigmatic as the film itself. I don’t buy into the idea that I should feel as lost as the characters when I’m watching the film. The film cannot just meander its way through a maze and never arrive at the other end, it has to have some sense of conviction and arrive at a destination. There has to be some sort of lesson or sense of enjoyment in the experience. If I wanted to watch somebody act insane for over two hours, I could have just stared in the mirror.
Matching a film’s length to its necessity to convey a theme is an elementary analysis that ought to be beneath the likes of PTA or Scorsese. PTA is known for focusing on characterization. His films lack traditional structure and follow the growth or destruction of his central characters. Neither happens in “The Master.” It just doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a frustrating experience that anyone with any sense should skip.