You may have seen the five worst films of 2009, but I did my best to avoid them. Instead, at year’s end, I’d rather recap my five biggest disappointments – movies that promised the world and delivered a fraction of their potential. To me, that’s far more upsetting than a bad movie, because they’ve squandered the opportunity, and now no one can go back and do it right. You probably won’t agree with my choices (maybe you went into Where the Wild Things Are expecting to be annoyed and came out enraptured – that actually happened to me with co-writer Dave Eggers’ other 2009 release, Away We Go). These picks were meant to be personal, but I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to share your biggest let-downs after the list, which you’ll find just after the jump…
1. Funny People
Let’s face it: No one’s better than Judd Apatow at raunchy-sincere relationship comedies, and I kicked off 2009 covering a day of shooting on Funny People for Collider, so my expectations were sky-high for what looked to be Apatow’s most personal film yet. It also suggested another shot at Serious Acting from Adam Sandler (I’ve been patiently waiting for him to give us more of that Punch-Drunk Love mojo). The stars, as they say, were in alignment. What we got, however, was a long, rambling and deeply self-indulgent powwow between a bunch of talented comics. The characters dress and talk and slouch like us (making this what exactly, a big-budget Mumblecore movie?), but I couldn’t have felt less connected as Apatow struggled to decide whether the movie was about a young joke-writer (Seth Rogen) trying to make it or an old hand (Sandler) trying to make good.
2. Where the Wild Things Are
I was flipping through some back issues of Premiere magazine from about a dozen years ago, and I came across an item reporting how Spike Jonze was set to adapt Harold and the Purple Crayon into a movie. After Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of “Duck Amuck”-style meta-concept Jonze might have applied to that material. Same goes for a property like Where the Wild Things Are, and given how long Jonze spent making this movie, I was hoping for something a little more substantial. What we get is “Being Max,” an exercise in re-entering the mild of a nine-year-old, and what we find there is a bit like being locked in a pscyh ward with a bunch of big, woolly manic-depressives. Without giving Max anything to do on that island, Jonze takes us on a journey that is beautiful, atmospheric and disappointingly dull.
3. The Twilight Saga: New Moon
OK, I’ll admit it. I like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, and I thought Catherine Hardwicke took a crap script and managed to inhabit it with living, breathing teenagers in the first movie. You could see it in the details: the way Bella would roll her eyes, or the passive-aggressive interactions between classmates in the school cafeteria. The film felt alive. I had pretty high hopes for the sequel (after all, I’m technically “Team Jacob”). After all, Chris Weitz is also good with teen stories, and those early photos of a shirtless Taylor Lautner … well, let’s just say they brought out the 13-year-old girl in me. But could a more ponderous, lead-footed potboiler possibly be made from New Moon? Shooting almost entirely in close-ups, Weitz turns this into a stuffy soap opera (a friend keenly called it a “training bodice ripper”). Let’s hope Hard Candy‘s David Slade can rescue it with Eclipse.
It wasn’t until this year that I finally caught up with Federico Fellini’s gonzo self-portrait 8 1/2 (here’s why), so the movie was fresh in my mind when I entered this ill-conceived musical. Yes, the original 1982 show beat Dreamgirls (the adaptation of which topped my 2006 list) for the Tony, and the cast is to die for (these divas have more Oscar bling between them than Meryl Streep), but the bigscreen version amounts to a Cliff’s Notes version of 8 1/2 interrupted every so often for a forgettable song from one of the ladies in Fellini’s life. We’re meant to revel in the sheer star power (because we sure as hell can’t believe the badly reworked Sophia Loren as Fellini’s mother), while Chicago director Rob Marshall fixates on all that is fabulous about Italy in the ’60s. The result reminds me why I’d rather see CQ than the making of Citizen Kane.
5. Police, Adjective
You’ll find this obscure Romanian film on a lot of top 10 lists (even some “best of decade” ones) from critics I really admire. That’s partly because the Romanian New Wave is a force to be reckoned with (the films aren’t easy going, but if you haven’t seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Netflix them forthwith). So things looked good when Cannes picked 12:08 East of Bucharest director Corneliu Porumboiu’s latest for competition. But the film is a dud. I get what he’s up to, depicting detective work in long, static takes as the dreary work that it is. And there’s a terrific 20-minute scene at the end in which the police chief schools his underlings in the literal definition of their jobs. Porumboiu has attempted to make a film about language, but he’s gone about it in the least cinematic way possible.