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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, January 05, 2019

entry arrow10:43 PM | The Films of 2018, List 1: The 25 Most Disappointing

Revised 8 January 2019

A General Introduction

Sometime early in 2018, I resolved to watch as many films as I could and duly rank them according to how I liked them, and briefly note how each one impressed me. It proved to be a herculean task, so much so that sometimes the ranking sufficed but the brief annotation did not; often it was because of some difficulty having to set my thoughts on each film right after viewing it: opinion, I quickly found out, was a flighty, restless bird, and a film I thought I liked after an evening's screening would somehow evolve to some lesser evaluation the next morning. The otherwise also proved true: I would have visceral hatred for a film, but once I started putting down my thoughts in words, I would surprise myself by actually possessing some admiration, often begrudging, over it. And the whole exercise proved to be taxing. How does one exactly find the time to watch at least three movies a night, just to keep up with the sheer volume of film being produced worldwide? I watched a total of 204 films last year; I barely cracked half the titles in my list.

But 2018, on the whole, has certainly been a fantastic year for film, and while Hollywood films consumed most of my attention this year -- it is simply because they are easier to access -- I have noticed that the rest of world cinema has been muscling Hollywood out in producing films that are not only excellent in terms of technical execution, it has managed to produce most of the dazzling and memorable films of the year. Take note of Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Roma and Chang-dong Lee's Burning, which remained with me weeks after I watched them. On that note, I must make mention the fact that I have not seen many Filipino films this year. Philippine Cinema, without doubt, is one of the most vital national cinemas in the world, but it is one that has become the sole province of the Manila-based cineast, that privileged creature who has access to festivals and cinematheques. I have decided not to be bothered by this fact.

Please note that as of January 8, these are the major films I have yet to see, and are thus unranked: At Eternity's Gate (Julian Schnabel, United States), Ben is Back (Peter Hedges, United States), Boy Erased (Joel Edgerton, United States), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, United States), Destroyer (Karyn Kusama, United States), If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, United States), On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder, United States), and Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino, United States and Italy), as well as Ash is Purest White (Zhangke Jia, China), Ayka (Sergey Dvortsevoy, Russia and Kazakhstan), Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia), Border (Ali Abbasi, Sweden), Capernaum (Nadine Labaki, Lebanon), Dear Ex (Chih-Yen Hsu and Mag Hsu, Taiwan), Girl (Lukas Dhont, Belgium), Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany), Shoplifters (Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan), and Tale of the Lost Boys (Joselito Altarejos, Philippines and Taiwan). On to the lists...


This is the first of several lists I've prepared, and we shall begin with the disappointments. Probably not the worst -- because I have not seen everything, and I have also chosen not to watch the regular debacle that is the Metro Manila Film Festival, and thus cannot rightly say whether many of its entries, savaged thoroughly by critics I admire and trust, have their place in this initial list. And I have no desire to find out either. But these are the films that thoroughly disappointed me for the waste of resources and talent, and often good will.

25. Little Italy (Donald Petrie, United States)

Obviously made with the best of intentions, the film features two pizza-making families [one is famous for its dough, and the other one is famous for its sauce] who used to be the best of friends, until a mysterious tiff breaks them apart. But here comes their scions, a son and a daughter who suddenly find that they love each other, somewhat. There are other plot elements, too, and what we eventually get is the colour and texture of this Little Italy community somewhere in Canada, their denizens all quirky. Emma Roberts and Hayden Christiansen try their best as the young lovers, but there is no chemistry to their romance, and the film overall is riddled with too many hokey elements that derail what works, although what works drown in this mess.

24. Church and State (Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox, United States)

This documentary feels like a derivative of the much superior The Case Against 8 from 2014, which chronicled the fight for gay marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court. This one is about a much earlier victory in that fight, done in the impossibly homophobic wild lands of Mormon-controlled Utah. But it lacks The Case Against 8's wit and its tension, blandly unfolding the motivations behind the proponents, as well as the infightings. But it does zero in very specifically on the religious motivations behind institutional homophobia: it targets the Mormon religion, taking it to task since it had gone over a huge challenge to their original conception of marriage, specifically polygamy, changing it to be accommodated as a component state of the U.S. -- but could not do the same for a more contemporary challenge.

23. Gutland (Govinda Van Maele, Luxembourg)

I love slowburning films, I love secrets and mysteries, and I often love films that are stingy with answers -- but it took me a while to appreciate Govinda Van Maele's Gutland, and only barely, I guess it was because it meandered too much and promised too much, and was barely giving me anything, except that a stranger wanting shelter and work has stumbled into a Luxembourg town of farmers, who first fends him off, but soon embraces him with kindness and consideration, but for what? What sinister thing lies behind all these? What are those pictures of naked women in his trailer all about? Who really is Lucy, the girl he finds himself having a relationship with? What it offers is a violent climax and a kind of reveal, but never enough to justify the slog we had to go through.

22. Love, Gilda (Lisa Dapolito, United States)

Something is off about this documentary about the comedian Gilda Radner, original cast member of Saturday Night Live and ambitious funny woman who somehow accidentally found herself in comedy stardom. She narrates her own story, gleaned from hours of tapes she had recorded before she died of cancer, as well as abundant material gleaned from numerous TV shows and movies. But the whole thing just doesn't stick, somehow. Her own narration seems off, or perhaps imperfectly recorded or edited, and the resulting story feels disjointed bordering on the uninteresting, even the unfunny. It feels totally undeserving of the subject.

21. Billionaire Boys Club (James Cox, United States)

What has The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short wrought? More tales of Wall Street types behaving badly. In the case of Billionaire Boys Club, it's crossed with the beefcake of The Covenant. And if you let that all sink in, you get essentially the appeal of James Cox's new film -- a film now buried under the post-Kevin Spacey tsunami. The young cast tries hard, especially Ansel Elgort, and in many ways they sell this film about a Ponzi scheme ensnaring the sons of Beverly Hills billionaires, which ultimately ends in violence and tragedy. Frankly, I have no taste for films like this.

20. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates, United States)

I watched and finished David Yates' Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald -- the latest instalment in the new Wizarding World franchise that Warner Bros. is trying to build -- and I still have no idea what any of it was all about. The problem I think is J.K. Rowling's script, which is an original. She should have written the novel first, to later have some talented scriptwriter adapt it with better structure suitable for cinema. It worked for Harry Potter, where her lengthy novels were handsomely pared down to their essences.

19. The Cloverfield Paradox (Julius Onah, United States)

Why is Cloverfield a franchise? The original 2008 movie -- an attempt to marry the found film genre to the monster film -- was only mildly interesting. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), while engaging, felt like two movies fused to one unsteady creature. The latest, Julius Onah's The Cloverfield Paradox, attempts a kind of explanation for the world the franchise has created -- a planet suddenly engulfed in deadly monsters -- but it feels half-baked despite the efforts of an all-star cast. The series of films feels a little too loose to belong to one universe [the backstory of each one, where a totally separate film production suddenly becomes reconfigured to become a Cloverfiled entry, lends credence to that observation]. At least with 10 Cloverfield Lane you got a film that somehow knew what it had to be; this new one doesn't know what it wants to be, and it leaves us feeling we couldn't care less for anything.

18. Bird Box (Susanne Bier, United States)

M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening was the better rendition of this apocalyptic story -- about unseen monsters causing people to commit suicide -- and that alone gives you a perfect understanding of how bad Susanne Bier's film is. Not even the ever dependable Sandra Bullock can save this film from its enormous plot holes and agonising twists. This is a film better seen with a blindfold.

17. The Cakemaker (Ofir Raul Grazier, Israel)

There was a reason why it took me a long time to get into Ofir Raul Grazier's The Cakemaker despite its "gay film" label, something I usually have no problem tearing into with glee and anticipation. What's not to like about this story about a Berlin cake maker who goes to Jerusalem to find the truth about the death of his Israeli lover -- only to find himself enmeshed in the life of his dead lover's widow? Sounded very dramatic and promising. Until it turned out to be a creepy, creepy drama that I was so eager to get over with.

16. Westwood: Punk Icon Activist (Lorna Tucker, United States)

Most documentaries about artists -- especially when they're done well -- will have you marvelling at their talent, and their process, if not their colourful lives. Lorna Tucker tries hard to do just that, but the iconic fashion designer Vivienne Westwood turns out to be a lousy subject -- a lousy human being with questionable ethics whose art cannot redeem her lousiness. I went into this film with such high respect for Westwood, and came away from it detesting every single thing about her.

15. Halloween (David Gordon Green, United States)

David Gordon Green tries hard, but he is unable to bring back the visceral terror of the 1978 John Carpenter original, even if they have gone to such extreme extent as rebooting the entire franchise by forgetting the sequels happened, by basically going back to the original's template, by bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis as a PTSD survivor. The first sequence set in the prison was tense and promised a breakthrough, but everything else that happens later felt tired, including a twist in the story I could smell from a mile away, as well as the standard stupidity of characters that get them killed. One such sequence late in the film completely upends the gravity of the sequence that came before, and you are left to ask, "Why did that just happen? Oh, right, they just need a reason for the killing." I am generally frazzled by horror movies -- but this one left me bored.

14. Flavors of Youth (Haoling Li, Yoshitaka Takeuch, and Xiaoxing Yi, China and Japan)

This China-centered anime, which is really an anthology of three short films that have nothing to do with each other save for the flimsy promise hinted at by the title, feels all of awkward and emotionally unrealised. Also forgettable. There's something about a soup shop, something about fashion and a nervous breakdown, and something about ... I can't remember exactly, but no matter. It was a chore to get through this.

13. Call Her Ganda (PJ Raval, United States)

The murder of Jennifer Laude deserves a better documentary than this. The transgender Filipina woman who was found dead in a motel room in 2015, with a U.S. Marine as the lead suspect, inspired considerable grassroots activists in the Philippines to demand accountability from the United States -- and her story is gripping. In putting together a lackluster film in need of better shape, and better research, PJ Raval finds a way of murdering Laude all over again.

12. The Happytime Murders (Brian Henson, United States)

I was rooting for this film. An adultish romp whose use of puppets makes you think this is a Sesame Street production gone amuck? The glorious Melissa McCarthy in the lead of a police procedural story like no other? Puppets having rambunctious sex? What's not to like? It turns out, everything. The film just doesn't execute any of its conceit well, leaving you grasping to draw a smidgen of laughter from its lame idea of comedy.

11. Macbeth (Kit Monkman, United States)

Kit Monkman's adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy is all sound and fury signifying the depth of a film school reject. God, how much I hate this staging with its over-earnest actors and their laughable deliveries, who go about their action and cues like grown people trapped in doing a third grade classroom play. That it tries to blindside us with aesthetics borrowed from 300 does not speak well of its direction at all.

10. Life of the Party (Ben Falcone, United States)

In an interview, comedian Melissa McCarthy swears that one of the funniest people she knows is her husband, Ben Falcone. Which is probably why she keeps going back to him to direct many of her films, all of them without doubt unfunny and are certified misfires. Which proves a point: you may be the best at your line of work, but you are blinded by the merits or lack thereof by the people you love. Life of the Party, which retreads Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School premise of a parent going back to college, lacks that 1986 film's sheer manic genius, and wastes McCarthy's comedic chops once more.

9. Sierra Burgess is a Loser (Ian Samuels, United States)

There are certain storytelling tropes that no longer land the way they used to. Cyrano de Bergerac may be a classic, and Steve Martin's take on it in Roxanne may have been a 1980s treat, but in 2018, in Netflix's Sierra Burgess is a Loser to be exact, it's just catfishing. And it's just creepy. Noah Centenio may be the Internet's crush of the moment, but even his charms can't save this lousily-written film.

8. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J. A. Bayona, United States)

They should have left this franchise alone long ago, when it was starting to show its tattered edges even when Steven Spielberg was still helming it. But nostalgia for the 1990s is currently powerful, which catapulted Jurassic World into T. Rex territory of box-office bonanza in 2015, although it wasn't much of a film. A follow-up was of course only to be expected. It would have been so easy to top the 2015 mediocrity, but for some reason J. A. Bayona, who has done better work before, feels overwhelmed by the studio expectations of a Hollywood blockbuster. So we get the island of dinosaurs in Costa Rica suddenly on the verge of a volcanic eruption -- thereby promising another round of extinction for the dinosaurs in one go. But to quote Ian Malcolm from the first movie -- and he makes an unnecessary appearance here, a cameo that is also the film's bookends -- "Life finds a way." And dinosaur life indeed finds its way -- into an old mansion, essentially transforming the Jurassic Park franchise into a haunted house movie. Let that sink in: the playground of the deadly dinosaurs this time is an old mansion. Palm, meet face.

7. Sobibor (Konstantin Khabensky, Russia)

Any Holocaust movie after Schindler's List -- especially if it deals with the horrors of the concentration camps -- has such a high bar to clear, any other effort without vision or stomach would be an exercise in futility. The story of Sobibor -- the only time when Jewish concentration camp prisoners were able to successfully fight and win over their Nazi guards during World War II -- deserve to be told, but it deserves to be told well compared to this exercise in sacrilege. It is earnest where it shouldn't be, it is often cloying, and its direction is so bad the whole film feels like a slap to the memory of the dead and those who survived the horrors.

6. A Wrinkle in Time (Ava DuVernay, United States)

A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay's misfire, is beautiful to look at, but it is still a misfire. It stands as a film that got sunk by its own good intentions, both the story's effort to tell a vaguely Christian tale of fighting darkness, and the director's effort to give a Hollywood would-be megablockbuster a kick of diversity. All that effort falls flat nonetheless, because the film is a tedious exercise that fights so hard your every effort to like it. Then again, we must be frank about this unpopular opinion: the source material by Madeleine L'Engle, a classic of children's literature, was never a good book in the first place despite its massive popularity; its "inventiveness" could inspire the shadiest eye-rolls in the world. That wonkiness is what got translated into this effort, and shows us what a mess this story is in the first place.

5. Vice (Adam McKay, United States)

This one is about U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, the devil politician of the Dubya years. But who cares? What is infuriating about the recent "serious" efforts of Adam McKay, starting with The Big Shot, is that his films feel like they're all THAT, and they're really not. They're failures of pacing, and utter failures in tone, and supreme failures as satires, but they're so oblivious to these and think they're quite grand because they're about serious topics that they feel self-congratulatory even though they're pooping shit everywhere. Even its stylistic choices -- a surprising end-credits roll in the middle of the film, a series of narration by various ordinary American citizens, etc. -- feel smug and unnecessary.

4. The Predator (Shane Black, United States)

Shane Black's The Predator feels very much like a throwback to the action movies of the 1980s -- which is understandable, given that this franchise sprang from that decade. But it remains mired in the sensibilities of that time -- all testosterone, relentless action -- that it strikes like a sore thumb today. There really is no need to do this movie, and thus what you get is a film that's all about regurgitation without humour or sense.

3. Always at the Carlyle (Matthew Miele, United States)

I'm sure the right filmmaker can make a great documentary over the most mundane of things. Errol Morris did that with pet cemeteries. Gary Hustwit did that with fonts. Frederick Wiseman often just goes to some place and let his camera roll. They have come away with wonderful films. All it takes is passion, depth, and execution. Matthew Miele's documentary on the Carlyle Hotel in New York has none of that, coming off instead as an infomercial in the guise of documentary filmmaking. It's just a relentless barrage of celebrity name-dropping and while it goes about its task of having hotel staff act as talking heads, I cannot help but feel that the observational camera of Frederick Wiseman can do a better job at fleshing out the allure and the cultural importance of this establishment.

2. The First Purge (Gerard McMurray, United States)

There are some movies where, at the halfway-mark, makes you question life, and whether to finish the travesty you're watching or go out and spend what remains of your time living out there in the world. I did not reach the halfway mark, I lasted 30 minutes.

1. The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, United States)

The worst film of the year. Not even the fact that this is a film based on a true story of real-life heroes -- of three young American men who foil a terrorist attack in a speeding French train bound for Paris -- makes me want to be generous to this awful, awful excuse of a movie. It's chilling demonstration of conservative values aside, it also makes the hideous choice of casting the real personalities behind the story as its leads. Atrocious acting follows.

Next: The Rest Outside of the Top 50...

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