Our reactionary, identity-obsessed culture loves consensus. We get carried away with championing things. Sometimes we’re too rushed and zealous to elevate cultural accomplishments as “the best,” and we lift those artifacts too high, casting a shadow that hides anything growing in proximity. For instance, did you know that there are bands from the 1960s that weren’t The Beatles? In spite of our reluctance to admit as much, Michael Jordan won’t always be the greatest basketball player ever and there are dozens of alternative rock bands from the 1990s that were of comparable quality to Nirvana, all with cutting edge innovation of sound.
The same stubborn adherence to superlatives influences film culture and usually not for the better. Keep in mind as we move forward that when I say a movie is “over-celebrated” I don’t immediately mean that the movie is bad. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. I just mean to point out that the movie in question hoards too much credit for achievement when there are many movies not receiving deserved credit for similar or better achievement. There, the disclosure’s out there. If you’re the type of person to skip the intr0, skim the entries, and leap defensively to the comments, you’re going to look pretty stupid when I reply to you and direct you back to this paragraph. Also, thanks for doing your part to make the internet what it is, you asswipe.
Instead of The Blind Side, Watch Win Win
The Blind Side: Sandra Bullock won her Oscar for her turn as Leigh Anne Tuohy, a well-to-do mother who adopted real life NFL player Michael Oher when he was in high school. Fair enough. But there’s something indignant and self-celebratory about Bullock’s performance and the movie’s saint-like framing of the sassy southern mother, who, at least in the movie, presents an uncomfortably forced Tennessee accent and pats herself on the back a little too hard for her charitable treatment of her new pet minority (this second point keeps me uncomfortable for the entire running time). So, it’s stunning that so many find this to be an inspirational film, “heartwarming” film even with its plastic polish job. This movie is so divisive that even the Academy seemed to have mixed feelings. While they awarded the statue to Bullock for Best Actress, the committee changed the Best Picture Nomination rules the very next year to ensure that movies of the mediocre quality of The Blind Side were no longer nominated.
Win Win: Todd McCarthy’s 2011 drama presents a similar situation. An unsuspecting family extends help to a gifted high school athlete who comes from troubled circumstances. However, the improvements are immeasurable. Paul Giamatti’s performance is measured, complex, and emotional. The film allows itself to explore moral ambiguity where The Blind Side doesn’t possess that courage. The touching moments are more touching and the humor is more intelligently realized. The Flaherty’s are a struggling middle class family and their relatability illustrates them as much more endearing and likable than The Blind Side‘s version of the Tuohy’s. Win Win enjoyed a smattering of critical success but flew largely under the radar, undeservedly.
Instead of Garden State, Watch All the Real Girls
Garden State: Oh, the manic pixie dream girl trope. Has any movie embraced it more nakedly than Garden State, Zach Braff’s insufferably self-indulgent exercise of symmetry and musical cues? Braff’s character, Largeman, is saved from a numb, unfeeling existence by helmet-wearing, spastic random dancer Sam, played by the Princess of the Pixie Girl Kingdom Natalie Portman. The movie ended up serving as a solid measurement of the size of the country’s pseudo-artsy, naval gazing, second-level hipster population (the second level is the level before the incomprehensible interest in “irony”), as the film harnessed distribution and early success based almost purely on word-of-mouth reaction. Ultimately, somehow, Garden State made its way onto Empire Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time.
All the Real Girls: Notice that I referred to Portman as the “Princess” of the Pixie Girl Kingdom. That’s because Zooey Deschanel is the undisputed Queen of the territory. And she’s never been pixier than she is in David Gordon Green’s overlooked 2003 youth romance follow-up to his masterpiece George Washington. Paul Schneider, as aimless womanizer Paul, is saved from his unrewarding lifestyle (and subsequently devastated into an ocean of new emotions) by Deschanel’s Noel. Green’s eye for imagery is sharper and more organic, his ear for loaded feelsy conversation is poignantly tuned, and his sense of indie-music is even… indier than Braff’s. The performances feel more real, and the impact is much more haunting.
Instead of The Notebook, Watch Away From Her
The Notebook: What is it about this celebrated melodramatic romance that sends women into a swooning tizzy? The Notebook‘s treatment of Allie and Noah’s separational situation is, to say the least, difficult to believe. I love Ryan Gosling as an actor and I think, in real life, he and professional cry-face Rachel McAdams made for an adorable couple. But I never felt the chemistry between the two in this film. And what’s worse, Nicholas Sparks and Nick Cassavetes frame Alzheimer’s and dementia as a condition that can be overcome through conviction of love, an absolutely insulting assertion for anyone who has witnessed a loved one slip into the grips of this horrible condition.
Away From Her: Sarah Polley’s debut feature candidly and lyrically explores the impact of Alzheimer’s on a marriage and cuts away the Hollywood fat, digging deep into the center of lifelong love in a way that The Notebook could not understand. Polley’s movie is informed by a stirring sweetness, a narrative film poetry rare to movie romances. Julie Christie brings her timeless affectionate beauty and Michael Murphy’s turn as the husband who must grieve before he’s lost is much more impressive than James Garner’s. Away from Her uses honesty where The Notebook uses immature idealism, and much of this difference can be attributed to the source material. Polley’s movie is adapted from the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” written by Alice Munro, a writer of actual literary substance.
Instead of Donnie Darko, Watch Take Shelter
Donnie Darko: For years, non-movie minded people have recommended Donnie Darko to me as a movie I’d enjoy because I like smart movies. The problem is, while Donnie Darko is an absolute textbook for dark, shadowy, mysterious film atmosphere, it never completes a thought in regards to its scattershot blast of themes, and its experiment in time travel physics is absolutely non-sensical. You know how they say if you make a face for too long that your expression will stay like that? Well, Donnie Darko is so befuddling an unsolved puzzle that star Jake Gyllenhaal still hasn’t quite shaken his perpetual WTF?-face. I’ve always been under the impression that every positive thing accomplished by Donnie Darko was a directorial accident. I’m not even convinced the film is aware that it gracefully handles its own schizophrenic implications.
Take Shelter: Jeff Nichols’ sophomore feature is a much tighter treatment of a man in the grips of nightmarish visions and potential schizophrenia. Nichols is equally adept at atmosphere (if you can’t see the similarities, just play Gary Jules’ Mad World while you watch; that might make it clearer), and Shannon’s performance packs the sort of power beyond the capability of a younger Gyllenhaal. Both films offer an even-handed, inobtrusive, non-judgmental look at what may or may not be debilitating mental illness and, while Donnie Darko’s ending has inspired a never-ending storm of pointless conversation, Take Shelter’s conclusion is tight and assured, chilling and finite, and leaves viewers completely jarred.
Instead of Rudy, Watch The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Rudy: Rudy holds up as one of the most popular sports movies and underdog tales of all time, a mind-blowing realization when one considers the widespread and deep-seeded hate for Notre Dame as a sports institution. I have never been able to invest myself in the storyline of this movie. I get the general appeal: What Rudy lacks in size, he makes up for with heart (Incidentally, as we see in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the gap between Rudy’s size and heart closed in considerably). But… C’mon. A whole movie building up to a 5’4″ defender getting a single sack in a throwaway game? Maybe, MAYBE if the film had taken place at a more respectable school. But, next time you watch, try to keep in mind that, given the film’s timeline, some of those teammates carrying Rudy off the field were possibly involved in these incidents. Seriously, fuck Notre Dame.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters: So, I know it’s a strange alternative, particularly to the segment of the fanbase that enjoys Rudy as a sports film, but perhaps the greatest competitive underdog movie of the last 20 years is a documentary about a video game. Steve Weibe is a middle school science teacher who pursues the longstanding Donkey Kong record held by loathsome, mulleted video game professional Billy Mitchell. Wiebe is the perfect everyman, a hardworking standard family-first fellow whose life has seen hair-length shortcomings and one too many moments of near-greatness. His dedication to a single mark of unmatched greatness is highlighted perfectly by a real-life ruthless villain. And cheering for Steve is freed of the moral stickiness that comes with cheering for Rudy.
Instead of Kill Bill, Watch Be Kind, Rewind
Kill Bill: Stick with me on this one. This is a lesson in craft and appreciation. I’ve written that Kill Bill is a non-movie smothered by its director’s smug need to highlight his own extensive film knowledge. Kill Bill is a movie that doesn’t understand the discipline required of homage, but has nothing to offer outside of attempts at homage. Every scene is informed by another movie, and yet, between all of that film history awareness, there’s little left to stand the movie up on its own. Quentin Tarantino bets all of his chips on his own library of film knowledge, and none on his film craft.
Be Kind, Rewind: Over reliance on homage isn’t, in itself, a fatal flaw. Not even when it informs every scene. Not even when it works to build the entire plot. The key is that the homage has to be decorative, placed upon a foundational structure of a movie and story that stands on its own. Michel Gondry’s tragically forgotten 2008 comedy is a master class in constructing a movie that loves other movies while establishing its own greatness. Be Kind, Rewind exists in the same universe as the movies it looks to celebrate; that’s pivotal to the plot. And the better part of the movie is spent in celebration of great films. Yet, at the end, it stands as its own film, heartwarming, creative, clever on its own feet.
Instead of Cabin in the Woods, Watch Resolution
Cabin in the Woods: Joss Whedon’s script and Drew Goddard’s film lit the forums afire in 2012. The film was endlessly praised for its meta-awareness and genre-satirizing. Horror fans were tickled pink with Cabin in the Woods‘ understanding and clever application of the predictable horror formula. And why not? It makes for great fun. But as an essay on the genre, what does it really contribute? Not unlike Kill Bill (see above), Cabin in the Woods seems to communicate little more than its creators’ understanding of the genre in which they’re working. And, if the horror genre in general is as stale and predictable as the movie is claiming it to be, this message is not just unnecessary, it’s also adding to the damage it’s diagnosing.
Resolution: In the same year as the release of Cabin in the Woods, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead crafted a movie full of similar self-awareness and meta-reference. Resolution presents an indie-horror which is well-versed in the standards and expectations of horror history. And it applies that knowledge as part of a larger, innovative horror experience. A multitude of horror tropes are recalled in the events of this film, but in a way that shapes and subverts viewer expectations, builds a frightening and uncomfortable narrative, and establishes a horror movie as scary as any in recent memory. Resolution was my favorite horror movie of 2012, and it accomplished this label by being being fresh, informed by predictable modern expectations, and, most of all, scary.