By Alan Mattli
Once again, the end of the year is upon us. It’s the time of lists, the time of remembering all the great films, books, songs, and albums the past twelve months have graced us with. But where would all the brilliance be if it weren’t for the awful pieces of “entertainment” that the year regularly washes up? Without them, we wouldn’t have a standard to measure the good stuff against. So, to honour those duds, I will now count down the bottom ten films of the year 2012, based on their Swiss cinema release. And since I have seen neither Battleship nor Breaking Dawn: Part 2, this list could actually contain some surprises.
Wrath of the Titans
Owing to an uneventful week, cinema-wise, I found myself sitting in a multiplex watching Jonathan Liebesman’s sequel to Louis Leterrier’s 2010 remake of the semi-classic 1980s fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans. I was not particularly excited about the prospect, not just because the movie would be in German – although I doubt the leaden dialogue would have improved much in English – but because I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the original, which was talky, tedious, and took far too little advantage of Ray Harryhausen’s classic special effects. So much so that I didn’t even bother with the remake. Well, Wrath of the Titans didn’t surprise: a good opening featuring probably the best 3-D effect I have ever seen (seriously!) was followed by a bunch of hokey actors, including, sadly, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, and Ralph Fiennes, hamming their way through a weak story of trying to stop Hades from resurrecting Kronos, and ended by a boring three-minute action scene lifted directly from Transformers. Yawn.
Killing Them Softly
Although many people weren’t impressed with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I loved New Zealand director Andrew Dominik’s ambitious sophomore piece about the death of the Old West and the rise of American celebrity cult. The noirish western remains one of the more fascinating movies of the past ten years, and arguably the most gorgeously photographed. Killing Them Softly,on the other hand, is of a different breed. Great actors like Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, and James Gandolfini are doomed to have pseudo-philosophical discussions about the nature of modern America, all the while Dominik inserts heavy-handed political satire using sound bites from the 2008 presidential campaign. It may just be 90 minutes long but the scenes’ glacial speed makes this mafia revenge story seem like a form of torture.
When visionary action directors Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski of The Matrix fame and Tom Tykwer (Lola rennt) team up, brilliance ensues, right? Wrong. Cloud Atlas, their adaptation of David Mitchell’s epic novel telling six parallel stories, somehow pulls off the feat of being the most hilariously terrible high budget movie in years – the metaphor of a train wreck seems fitting. Its message – “Everyone and everything is connected” – is delivered with leaden seriousness, despite the fact that the film finds it necessary to dress up Hugo Weaving as a woman, star Halle Berry in whiteface, and have Tom Hanks hamming it up in all sorts of ludicrous disguises. The directing trio wanted to present the world with a new Intolerance. What they did was involuntarily duplicate the work of Monty Python and The League of Gentlemen. Kudos.
2012 abounded in movies trying to capture the weird essence of literature. On the Road failed to recreate the rebellious prose of Jack Kerouac; The Rum Diary aesthetically turned Hunter S. Thompson’s book into a holiday advertisement for Puerto Rico; Ruby Sparks curiously succeeded in making a mentally deeply disturbed character its emotional center. All of these films are extremely flawed but I will choose each and every one of them over the unfocused, pretentious mess that is The Words. Bradley Cooper stars as a troubled, melancholy-afflicted artiste trying to make a living as an honest author in an uncaring world that is too philistine to appreciate his delicate output. However, when he finds an old manuscript and passes it off as his own, he is emotionally blackmailed by the original writer. And did I mention that the whole story is a story within another story? Brian Klugman’s and Lee Sternthal’s desperate attempt to create a deep and devastating work of art about the intricacies of literature just comes off as cloying and overwritten and commits the ultimate sin: it’s excruciatingly boring.
L’exercice de l’État
Like their Italian counterpart, French politics are a mess, just with fewer adultery scandals and more red tape. Making a satirical film about it shouldn’t have been too hard but leave it to auteur Pierre Schöller to botch it up. The film may sport an interesting look and some impressive performances, especially from lead actor Olivier Gourmet, but it is drowned in overly bizarre imagery trying and failing to upstage Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Alexander Jodorowsky’s La montaña sagrada, unnecessary gimmicks, and a frustrating impenetrability one might generously interpret as a reflection of political scheming if the film actually had something substantial to say. As is, however, L’exercice de l’État wants to be deviously clever in its portrayal of a politician’s integrity’s downfall but only manages to be aggravatingly smug about its intentions.
Swiss cinema may have never ranked among the world elite but the last few years paint a dire picture of the state of things. Sickeningly cutesy documentaries like Die Kinder vom Napf dominate the market while real talents like Urusla Meier (Home, L’enfant d’en haut) are becoming increasingly rare. The situation did not improve this year when Martin Suter released his latest screenplay and had it filmed by the talented Christoph Schaub (Sternenberg, Jeune Homme). While the latter’s seasoned direction saves Nachtlärm from being a complete failure, Suter’s anaemic script is utter rubbish. The story – a couple’s baby is kidnapped by mistake, which results in a wild car chase through the night with a lot of interested parties – is brought down by its invariably annoying characters, most notably Alexandra Maria Lara’s nagging ingrate of a young mother, its artificiality, and its lame jokes, which seem to consist mostly of “tasteful” banalities, unconvincing idiosyncrasies, and one character’s irritable colon.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Imagine my dismay when I heard that Lasse Hallström’s shamefully trite rom-com has received three Golden Globe nominations. Even if the film had succeeded in being a heartwarming comedy about two sad people finding happiness and love in each other, the nominations would have been presumptuous. So what ever made the Hollywood Foreign Press mistake the mismatched coupling devoid of chemistry that is Ewan McGregor’s misanthropic fish expert and Emily Blunt’s obnoxious businesswoman for love is anyone’s guess. Hallström, working from a career-low screenplay by the talented Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), insults the audience with forced imagery, uninspired twists, religious stereotypes, and an optimistic tone that never rings true.
A Few Best Men
Just like films about literature crowd the screens these days, wedding comedies are all the rage, even though most people will agree that there is no point in trying to top The Hangover and Bridesmaids anymore. But apparently, screenwriter Dean Craig (Death at a Funeral – both versions) still wanted to give the genre another stab. The result is A Few Best Men, a cringeworthy attempt at frat comedy that combines the boring with the downright disgusting. It is glaringly obvious that Craig himself was not sure where the humour was in his boy-meets-girl-from-stereotypical-cultural-background story, so for the most part, the movie settles for having no jokes at all.
If you want to teach your children to respect the environment and to stop pollution, don’t show them The Lorax, Chris Renaud’s and Kyle Balda’s misguided adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ classic cautionary tale. Unlike the 25-minute 1972 TV version of the book, which included sophisticated commentary on the dilemma of wanting to preserve both jobs and nature, this flick lacks any kind of thoughtful reflection. Building on a premise that doesn’t translate into reality – “Trees are cool” –, Renaud and Balda expand the original story and include a James Bondian villain, who has to be fought by the young main character and his featureless love interest. Dramatically, the film doesn’t work in the slightest because it never feels the need to tell its audience why trees are actually important. The singing characters just assure us they are. This ignorance and callousness towards Dr. Seuss’ intended message is not merely stupid, it’s nothing short of cynical, as the producers basically admit that they don’t care about what they are preaching. In that respect, The Lorax is more than just a bad animated movie for children. It’s a vile, misleading film.
Das Missen Massaker
Amazingly, Michael Steiner is still hailed as one of Switzerland’s best contemporary directors and films like Mein Name ist Eugen (nicely nostalgic but unremarkable) and Grounding (terrible) as recent highlights of the national cinematic output. There are even people who seriously argue that his latest work is a clever send-up of beauty contests and the slasher horror genre alike. But just like Steiner is a criminally overrated director, Das Missen Massaker is a movie unworthy of anyone’s time and money. It is, simply put, quite possibly the worst film ever produced in this country. Too stupid to be scary, too childishly hateful to be funny, it is born out of Michael Steiner’s hatred against beauty pageants, which gives it a mean-spirited, uncomfortable air. The unlikeable, scantily-clad, brainless characters, who are gradually killed off on a tropical island, are part of an offensive minstrel show of all the stereotypes one could think of; gender, cantonal, racial, you name it. And apart from its utter tastelessness, Das Missen Massaker even fails in basic filmmaking: everyone is constantly spouting lazy exposition, no-one involved shows any traces of acting talent; and even the editing is dishearteningly amateurish. It has all the makings of a low-budget exploitation film but knowing its source, namely an established Swiss director with a significant amount of money backing him, makes the experience all the worse.
So please, forget these movies, and watch this space for my list of the best films of the year, which is coming very soon.