A friend of mine, we'll call him, "Henry," often accuses me of being a hater because I am frequently unenthusiastic about the movies we tend to see together. I generally shrug off his criticism – I mean, is he going to go to the mattresses for "Real Steel?" I didn't think so.
But lately I've been on a tear where Hollywood just can't seem to please me. "Hugo?" Violently hated it. "The Artist?" Meh. "The Iron Lady?" Not so much. "The Adventures of Tin Tin?" Zzzzzzzzz. "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?" More like, The Girl with the Major Plot Holes.
Then the Academy Award nominations came out, and guess what? Every single film I mentioned here, (yes, even, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Rocky) is nominated for something, if not multiple awards. Could "Henry" be right? Could I be a hater? Have I become a grumpy old man who longs for the good old days?
I decided to conduct a self exam. I figured a good place to start would be to look at the films I saw in 2011 and see what I thought.
Of the 500 or so films major studios released in 2011 I saw 44. I'd call 15 of them "Good." I'd recommend them, watch some of them again. I'd consider 18 of them to be "Okay." And just over the line from "Okay," live 10 films I'd call "Dumb." And one movie sent me into a homicidal rage, (you know who you are, you English boy living inside the walls of a Paris train station.)
So for me, Hollywood is batting .340 at least. Depending on my mood, an Okay could climb to Good – a movie like "Contagion," or "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." But it cuts both ways – an Okay could easily slip to Dumb if I look a little closer. So watch your step "X-Men: First Class," or "Captain America: The First Avenger."
In fact, thinking about it, I just downgraded Captain America to Dumb.
But let's focus on the positive. If just a third of the movies I'm so-so on can become Good – which seems reasonable – that makes Hollywood's average for me this year 48%. That's not too shabby – a decent return on my time, and a favorable score any politician would kill for.
But there's a dark side too. Of the 10 films I didn't like, and the one film that I hated with the burning white hot passion of a thousand suns, three of them have been nominated for Academy Awards (including the most nominated film this year).
What was it about these films that I disliked so much, while others fawned over them?
No doubt overhyping had something to do with it. I try not to let them get my expectations up too high, but sometimes there's nothing you can do – a mediocre film that is the darling of critics and festival crowds very often becomes a victim of its own success. (Hello, "The Artist.")
But upon closer examination of the films I thought were real dogs, or just hugely disappointing to me this year: "Hugo," "Young Adult," "Tattoo," "The Iron Lady," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," and a few others, it was about storytelling.
I usually found them to be weak stories badly told, and filled with poor story choices. I don't do spoilers – even for films I didn't enjoy – so I'll write in generalities.
"Tattoo's" characters are thoroughly developed, but 2/3 of the way through, depart so far from what is reasonable for those characters that it is as if the author and screenwriter are introducing two new characters. (To be fair to the filmmakers – this is one of two major problems in the book itself. The film is quite true to the book.)
"The Iron Lady" had a great subject – a powerful, groundbreaking, history-altering woman. Unfortunately, the filmmakers clearly hold Thatcher in contempt and as such, give us a glancing blow of what has no doubt been a fascinating life, and instead focus on mocking an old woman who may be showing signs of Alzheimer's.
"Young Adult" was a brave attempt – a film with a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist. But a few weeks into production, it appears they ran out of film so they just ended it.
We weren't so lucky with "Hugo." They had all the film they needed to destroy this great book. I've written about it before, so I don't need to beat this dead horse, suffice to say, the director made choices that I find…inconceivable.
And "Rise?" Well, I didn't go expecting a Best Picture type of film, but in the classic Apes films, it's this story – how it all happened – that is the richest material to mine, and it's my personal favorite. The 2011 version just fell flat with weak characters, confusing motivations, and apes that can reproduce faster than the Duggar family. Such a waste.
As a writer who struggles everyday with storytelling – with making characters real and logical, giving them unique voices, depth, and souls; with trying to find where the story begins and where it ends, and how we get there – it is this sloppy storytelling that I find so disappointing. I don't think it's too much to ask for a story that holds up. And my goodness, with the amount of money riding on these films, why wouldn't you take the time to use a coherent script?
But there was plenty of good storytelling this year too. "Source Code," "Winter in Wartime," "Hanna," "Midnight in Paris," "The Debt," "Friends with Benefits," "Crazy Stupid Love," "Drive," and "Fright Night" were some highlights for me. There were others, of course, but these stood out as triple threats: clever, well-written, and well-acted. They were worth my time, and if you missed them, seek them out. (Thank goodness there's an Oscar nominee in here. At least I'm not 100% perverse.)
In the end, I don't consider myself a hater. I consider myself someone who knows a good story when he hears one, but just as well, can spot a stinker too. I'm more than willing to give up two of my hours and 10 of my dollars, but, Hollywood, you better bring your A game. I'd hate to think you brought me anything less.