In any given year there are bound to be a few critical darlings that you don’t quite agree with, but seemingly never more than this year. So before posting My Favorite Films of 2011, I thought I should acknowledge some movies that won’t be making an appearance on my list. These films have been so critically adored - making appearances on virtually every Top 10 except, well, my own - that I feel like I have to address their absence. Yes, I’ve seen them and though they all had admirable qualities, in one way or another, all fell short for me. That’s not to say that these are the worst films by any means, (those are coming soon), I actually liked most of these but didn’t feel any quite deserved the praise heaped upon it. The following films have been ranked according to the disparity between the critical consensus and my own, or to put it simply, most to least overrated.
1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
The most ambitious studio release of the year is regrettably also the most overrated. For the most part, “The Tree of Life” is a brilliant act of misdirection: admire the stunning photography and sweeping ambition but try to ignore the overbearing New Age narration and overreaching finale. No film this year has received more praise while being so seemingly unloved by anyone. (Have you heard anyone ramble on about this film the same way they did about “Drive”? Or “The Muppets” even?) It’s like every critic and film snob collectively agreed to give it a pass simply because they felt obligated to. I know I’ve said it before but this is one case where the Emperor is no longer wearing any clothes.
2. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Look, I admired the 3D too and absolutely loved the George Melies section that has so many reviewers breathlessly declaring the film “a love letter to cinema.” But dear God, how could no one else acknowledge how lifeless and awkward the first hour of the film was? Or how dull Hugo himself was? As far as I can tell, the central character in this film has not been singled out by a single review as being anything resembling “interesting.” And those aren’t the kinds of things you can just overlook, no matter how much I love Scorsese or his storybook concoction of Paris.
3. The Descendants (Alexander Payne)
As a big fan of Payne’s work (“About Schmidt” is a personal favorite), it pains me to admit that this is his weakest film to date, which makes it absolutely mystifying that it’s receiving so much praise. Adapted from a novel by other screenwriters (then rewritten by Payne), the film is missing the bite of his earlier work, neither as funny or heartfelt as many would have you believe. Even Clooney has been better in Payne disciple Jason Reitman’s “Up In The Air.” The relaxed Hawaiian setting has had an effect on the film and not in a good way. This is what it looks like when a director shifts into neutral.
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Having seen this at Sundance earlier this year, at the very birth of the buzz, I’ve spent nearly a year in the vocal minority for this film. This film suffers from Sundance Syndrome, it’s all atmopshere and no development. Flashback-present day-repeat without the central character (Elizabeth Olsen, deserving of the praise) ever doing anything proactive. Isn’t that what a protagonist is for? I began intrigued but left frustrated. Olsen and Durkin may be talents to watch but ‘Martha’ will likely be remembered more as a launching pad than a singular achievement.
5. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Every film geek has a blind spot and I’m not sure anyone would be surprised to find out that World Cinema is definitely mine. That said, regardless of the country of origin there are certain things I look for in a film - to move me in some way, make me feel something for the characters, or at a base level, just entertain me - and “A Separation,” the leisurely paced Iranian melodrama, did not do those things. There are people out there who love this film and I absolutely cannot relate to those people.
6. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
I get it, film critics. The film deserved better than its unceremonious dumping by Fox Searchlight a half decade after it was filmed. But let’s not get carried away here, folks. There are as many good scenes here as bad ones and adding another 30 minutes isn’t going to fix the film’s issues any more than pretending that this was one of the 10 best films to be released this year. (It isn’t.) While “Margaret” undoubtedly has its charms, its champions have gone more than a little overboard in extolling its virtues partially to prove their own influence.
7. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
As I said in my review, “never has a film I was so looking forward to made so little of an impression on me.” From the opening frames through the end credits, Alfredson’s admittedly gorgeous looking but hermetically sealed spy un-thriller never gave me a reason to care about what was going on. The cast is fantastic and cinematography is some of the finest I’ve seen all year but an emotional connection? Nothing. Confused I can deal with but excluded is a deal breaker.
8. Melancholia (Lars Von Trier)
I’ve never been a fan of Von Trier’s films, (to me he’s always seemed like a juvenile Michael Haneke), but I have to admit I did enjoy “Melancholia.” The audacious opening alone ranks as one of the cinematic highlights of the year which is, I suspect, in part why people have fallen for the film. While it was probably my favorite of the provocateur’s work to date, it’s lopsided and occasionally silly. The first half is exponentially more interesting than the second, though that too, contains its fair share of ridiculous moments. “Justine, I need that tagline!”
9. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Like Sundance brethren ‘Martha Marcy,’ “Take Shelter” is another case of a great premise with nowhere to go. Certain critics have complained about the ending which took away the film’s ambiguity but my problem was that it took so long to get there. With a two hour running time, the film is deadly repetitive, drawing out familiar scenes without illuminating or expanding what you already know. Essentially a mood piece (and that mood is very effective) it would have been much more successful had they trimmed 20 minutes and not given the audience (me) a chance to realize the filmmakers were treading water.
10. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Impeccably shot and acted, this is the third film on this list (along with ‘Martha Marcy’ and “Take Shelter”) that is tediously repetitive. Though I liked ‘Kevin’ quite a bit, it’s one of those films you could check out after the first 15 minutes and tune back in during the last 5 without missing a single beat of essential character or story. Which, quite frankly, when it’s all over feels like a waste of my time. Unlike the frustrating ‘MMMM,’ the central character here at least tries to do something about her situation. I admire Ramsay’s style but wish she had pushed it further.
Stay tuned for my actual Top 10.