Pics miss the mark but leave an impression
At this time of year, while the critics and guilds embark on their annual celebration of success, I usually find myself reflecting on the flops rather than the hits. Failure doesn’t win you statuettes, but there is often more to be learned from the turkeys than from the winners.
Looking back on this year’s losers, it seemed possible to predict bad news simply from scanning titles. When “Bitch Slap,” “Falling Awake” and “The Human Resources Manager” first adorned theater marquees at the end of 2009 and early 2010, a certain foreboding set in. On the other hand, when I first saw the title “127 Hours” and learned that it was the definitive movie about self-amputation, I never suspected that Danny Boyle was about to pull off another of his surprise hits.
Ten Best lists are often used by critics to advertise the fact that, as dedicated cinephiles, they understood this year’s arty underperformers even though the public missed the point.
Hence, while Time’s list embraced “Toy Story 3,” it also included movies that few others managed to see, such as “Four Lions” and “Wild Grass.” In the same vein, New York magazine’s list embraced “Despicable Me” but also celebrated such obscurities as “Mother and Child” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop”.
While I don’t believe in 10 Best lists, I like to keep track of those films each year that I admired (some were guilty pleasures) but that still ended up as distinct underachievers. My candidates this year:
n “Pirate Radio,” a self-mocking ode to ’60s music from Richard Curtis, never found an audience in late 2009 or early 2010. But what other movie had its heroes’ ship sink while the band played “A Whiter Shade of Pale?”
n “Love and Other Drugs,” a sexy romance, probably alienated some filmgoers because it revealed more insider gossip about the medical and pharmaceutical establishments than anyone wanted to know.
n “Middle Men,” a strangely affecting muddle of a movie that combined “The Social Network” with the illegal drug trade and thus confused everyone.
n “The Green Zone” was set in Iraq (think instant failure), went way over budget and embarrassed its studio (Universal). But was still both compelling and courageous.
n “City Island,” which starred Andy Garcia, who also produced it on a dime, found a cult niche because of its totally dysfunctional family humor.
n “Death at a Funeral” was a hilarious English comedy from 2007 that found double humiliation: Not only was it a flop Stateside, it was reinvented last year as an African-American flop.
n “Casino Jack,” in which Kevin Spacey ate the scenery portraying Jack Abramoff, reinforced the longstanding dictum that you should never make a movie about a lobbyist.
n “Edge of Darkness,” a quality thriller, received a chilly reception because, among other things, no one apparently wanted to acknowledge that Mel Gibson was its star.
n “Greenberg,” a dour and somewhat nasty Ben Stiller vehicle, was both original and smart and deserved better than total ignominy.
n “Carlos,” a gripping suspense piece, was made as a six-hour movie then recut into a shorter feature that I have never seen. But my cinephile friends tell me that it should be included on every list, and I don’t want to thwart them.
n “Kick-Ass” is arguably the most outrageous, vulgar, over-the-top superhero movie of all time (let’s hope). It was a movie that defied audiences to like it — and most never saw it.
My list could go on and on, but it would wear out its welcome. After all, most filmgoers rejected these films the first time around. They don’t want to be reminded of their decision.