10 Most Underated Movies of 2010

There's no perfect way to quantify whether or not a movie is underated. This is largely due the way that the two most commonly cited rating agregators work.

IMDB, the most commonly visited movie site on the internet, generates an average score based on user feedback. While that does a pretty good job of measuring the movie's popularity, it doesn't realiably measure the quality of the movie.

The other commonly referenced review site is Rotten Tomatoes. Their standard metric is a simple percentage of accredited movie critics that give the movie a positive review. This is the metric most commonly cited by the media. There are a litany of problems with their methodology as well, but given that there are some quality control measures in place (some of which I take issue with), I will use the Rotten Tomatoes (RT) score throughout the article.

In order to quantify how underated a movie was by the critics, I have assigned number grades to the 40 or so best movies I've seen this year, and compared them with their RT scores. Here are the results.

10) The American -12 (RT: 65, Me: 77)

9) Ondine -20 (RT: 70, Me: 90)

8) Valhalla Rising -21 (RT: 69, Me: 90)

7) The Book of Eli -25 (RT: 48, Me: 73)

6) Dinner for Schmucks -26 (RT: 44, Me: 70)

5) Never Let Me Go -27 (RT: 66, Me: 93)

4) Prince of Persia -37 (RT:36, Me: 73)

3) The Wolfman -47 (RT: 33, Me: 80)

2) The Tourist -57 (RT: 20, Me: 77)

1) Jonah Hex -64 (RT: 13, Me: 77)


The 9 Worst 2010 Blockbusters I've Seen

I had to insert the caveat "I've Seen", since I recognize that there are plenty of awful movies I didn't bother to watch. I'm sure that Charlie St. Cloud or Devil would have found a cushy spot on this list, but I don't waste my time on run of the mill bad movies. There's a special place in my heart for so-bad-it's-good movies, but such accidental masterpieces rarely get wide releases. I didn't bother trying to extend the list to ten, since these 9 are far worse than anything I could tack on the end.

9) Robin Hood

This was the year's second most disappointing film. Pairing a talented director like Ridley Scott with stalwart actor Russel Crowe should result in a reasonably good film. Unfortunately, the screenplay was riddled with stilted dialogue, and bizarre creative license. I don't have an issue with movies emphasizing the political elements of classic tales, but the least they could have done was get the politics right.

8) The Expendables

I don't usually expect much from generic action movies. However, this wasn't supposed to be a generic action movie. After career redeeming roles from Jean Claude Van Damme (JCVD), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), it seemed that the idea behind The Expendables was to bring together a slew of washed up action stars to make a credible film. At least that's how it was billed. In the end, it was nothing special. In fact, I can barely recall the plot outline. No wonder Van Damme turned down a part. Unlike the stars of the expendables, it turns out that he actually does have a smattering of dignity.

7) Hot Tub Time Machine

I've got a pretty low bar for mainstream comedies. They aim for the lowest common denominator, and are usually not far off. At least they usually provide a few cheap laughs. Not so with Hot Tub Time Machine. It was so thoroughly unamusing that I had to re-watch Office Space afterwards to make sure I was still capable of laughing.

6) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I don't expect much of Oliver Stone anymore, but I had to see this since I'm interested in how complex public policy issues are distilled into film. I'll give him some credit: he didn't stoop to Michael Moore levels. Given that the cast included Carey Mullingan and Josh Brolin, and Michael Douglas, I expected this to compare favourably with the average Stone flick. In fact, it might well be his worst film. The mediocre screenplay might have been salvaged to a degree were it not for his decision to cast Shea LaBeouf in the lead role. I might have been able to take the contrived narrative, and pointless plot twists a bit more seriously if the lead role was filled by someone who could...what's that word? Act.

5) The Sorceror's Apprentice

There is nothing as annoying as a movie that tries to beat you over the head with an emotional mallet. This is exactly what The Sorceror's Apprentice does. It is a classic loser gets the girl movie, filled with precisely timed feel good music and handy little life lessons. It was probably the most annoying movie I actually sat through, but I'm holding it to a slightly lower standard, since it is a kids movie.

4) Predators

I walked out of this after the third time Topher Grace yelled out "Guys! What's happening?" That pretty much summed up how I felt about the movie at that point, so it felt like an appropriate segue. To my surprise, it turns out that the mind bogglingly bad plot got even worse after I walked out. Topher Grace evil mastermind? Really? REALLY?

3) Alice in Wonderland

This was easily the year's biggest disappointment. Had you told me at the start of the year that two of the worst films would be collaborations between Ridley Scott and Russel Crowe, and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, I wouldn't have believed it. Like Robin Hood, Alice was a revisionist version of the tale, that successfully purged the story of everything interesting. Moreover, the sexual overtones of the film were disturbing on multiple levels. If Burton wanted to make a version of Alice for grown ups, he should have just gone ahead and done it. This wasn't subversive. It was just tasteless.

2) Splice

Trans-gendered bi-sexual incestuous inter-species sex. While there were only two scenes of this description in the movie, it was more than enough to ruin the already mediocre film.

1) Hereafter

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood tries to do two things. First, he attempts to show how death affects three different people in different ways. Second, he strains to find a way to put these three people (from different countries) into a room. A great director would have stuck to the first. Doing both severed its ties with reality--let alone plausibility--and allowed it to become a full blown fairy tale for adults. It is two hours and nine minutes of non-stop coincidences. The only consolation was occasional unintentional humour that made the whole experience slightly less excruciating.


The Tourist: Brilliant Satire Confuses Critics

★ ★ ★ 1/2

I usually make a halfhearted effort to hide my disdain for the average movie critic. After a string of excellent movies were widely panned, my patience has worn thin. The Tourist is the last straw. The critical consensus is that it has little to offer but attractive stars and a simplistic plot. They couldn't be more wrong. Ostensibly an ordinary spy film, it was in fact a biting satire of the genre.

The first thing you'll notice about the movie is that the male lead isn't exactly James Bond. Rather, Depp plays an insecure Midwestern math teacher. By contrast, Angelina Jolie stars as a worldly woman of mystery, pursued by Scotland Yard. Depp's character is just the sucker who she's dragging around, one step ahead of her pursuers. Reading this description probably makes you think that this is a parody of a Bond film. It is. This eluded the critics.

What The Tourist lacks in explosions and crass humour, it makes up with a deceptively complex plot, and a pair of clever lead roles. The sheer lack of chemistry between Depp and Jolie (which the critics failed to realize was intentional) lead to plenty of ackward humour, and clever banter. Jolie is suave, and manipulative. Depp's character is, well, a math teacher. In the hands of any other actor, the role would have been unremarkable. His halting demeanor and overrationalizing under fire had me in tears the whole way through. Maybe it's because I've seen Fear and Loathing dozens of times, but every one of Depp's bizarre mannerisms had me in stitches. I kept hearing him ask in my head "is this not a reasonable place to park?" It wasn't Johnny Depp playing a Midwestern school teacher. It was Johnny Depp playing Raoul Duke portraying a Midwestern school teacher. In short, it is the funniest movie of the year.


Hereafter (2010)

★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Clint Eastwood has proven beyond all doubt that Gran Turino was a fluke. As per usual, Eastwood provided a dreary, plot driven movie with delusions of grandeur. The movie was based on a series of Paul Haggis type coincidences. It's characters were like wooden pegs that Eastwood could easily fit into an elaborate series of coincidences. There were three separate plots, and not one of them was interesting. The only virtue of the entire movie was the tsunami scene, which--other than being overly manicured--presented an interesting point of view perspective of a beach front being wiped out. This couldn't make up for the next two hours of the film. It was simplistic and poorly written. The only reason I gave it one star is that I don't know how to create a half star with html.

Hereafter is basically a cross between The Sixth Sense and Crash. If this sounds like a good thing to you, you'll probably like it.


The Social Network (2010)

★ ★ ★ ★

I've always been skeptical of major box office successes, especially when they're about "true stories." Had The Social Network not been a David Fincher movie--scratch that--had David Fincher not cast Andrew Garfield, I wouldn't have made time to see it. I'm glad I did. Rather than a simple Zuckerberg biopic, Fincher and Sorkin presented the evolution of Facebook within the broader context of technological evolution. This was quite refreshing. Most historical fiction gets bogged down by a focus on the personalities involved, rather than exploring the interconnection of events. Chance exchanges of ideas, and randomness play a greater part in the entrepreneurial process than most people imagine. The great man theory of history rarely bears out in real life.

The Social Network brilliantly demonstrated how the Facebook emerged, evolved, and shaped--and was shaped by--society. The movie was "about" Mark Zuckerberg to an extent, but what really made it interesting is that it demonstrated how the Internet has obscured the boundaries of intellectual property, and how a simple idea can take hold of our collective consciousness. As the technology evolved, so did the language--and vice versa. Facebook went from being an idea tossed around by a bunch of college kids to a verb within weeks. No one really owns the idea any more than they own the verb. Yet, it has transformed into a network of 500 million users. The lawsuits are presented in a non-linear fashion. Arguments and evidence from each are presented out of turn, yet in a manner that shapes the case to the audience. Who said what? Who owns what? What evidence is real, and what is a smear job from a college paper? These things are ephemeral; subservient to the entity that a series of conscious decisions, coincidences, and mistakes have created.

The actual production value was much higher than I'd anticipated. Trent Reznor (who's music I don't actually listen to) put together an amazing score. An eclectic mix of industrial, techno, and metal drove the pace of the film. Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography beautifully transitioned from one scene to the next. The pace ebbed, and flowed, but it always felt consistent. He relied heavily on still shots to slow down the pace at the beginning, and gradually introduced more camera movement to speed things up. Tracking shots through party scenes, panning around a party bus--these are the type of things that created the kinetic atmosphere. At first nothing is moving. Once Facebook is created, nothing stops moving.

This is probably the only decent role Jesse Eisenberg will ever play. I find him intensely annoying, yet he fit this part just perfectly. Even Forrest Whittaker had one good role. More importantly, this was Andrew Garfield's first major mainstream role. He's done mostly arthouse work so far, and is about to become one of this generation's biggest stars. I suppose that will be solidified when he takes on the role of Spiderman. Also in his first major role was Justin Timberlake, who put in an admirable performance.

I've always maintained that it is exceedingly difficult to make a great film with over $50 million dollars. In order to make a production of that scale profitable, it has to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The genius of this film is that Fincher and Sorkin took an idea that has wide appeal and put just enough arthouse in it to keep demanding viewers interested, while not alienating casual movie goers. This is David Fincher's masterpiece.


Let Me In (2010)

★ ★ ★ ☆

For those of us who've seen Let the Right One In, the American remake had a tough act to follow. I'll spare the suspense: Let Me In was not as good as the original. While it did some things better, it did many things worse. Despite the inconsistency, it is definetly worth the watch. Even if you've seen the original, it still manages to hold your attention. Much of this can be attributed to a number of iconic scenes, but credit is definetly due to the technical crew members for putting together one of the most technically sound movies you'll see this year. If you take a keen interest in cinematography and sound editing, you won't want to miss this. It is a tour de force on both fronts. Some phenomenal supporting roles certainly helped. However, at least one major casting mistake, and uneven dialogue marred the production value. It was good, when it could easily have been great.

The biggest issue with the film was the role of Abby. On a superficial level, Chloe Moretz did not fit the part at all. Abby ought to have been an icy, ephemeral character (as in the original). Instead, she is blonde, has a regular skin tone, and seems altogether normal. She's even less vampire like than a Twilight character. Her action sequences were also oddly clunky. Not all of the roles deficiencies can be blamed on a casting error. Her dialogue was weak--disproportionately to the relatively well written screenplay. I'm not quite sure what Matt Reeves was thinking. I suppose it can be tough to script such a feral character, but either way it was lackluster.

Owen was also a role that left something to be desired when compared to the original. Though he wasn't exactly a missfit in the role, Kodi Smit-McPhee couldn't quite live up to the original. The original role (Oskar) was among the best portrayals of a victim of bullying. The victim of bullying can also be among the most frightening avengers when given the chance. Alienation, and powerlessness can turn the most innocent child into a merciless transgressor. Owen was a reasonable facimile of this, but not on the level of Oskar.

While the lead roles were unsatisfying, a pair of supporting actors put in excellent roles. Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas are two of the best character actors around. While their roles didn't require much extension, they brought a level of gravitas to the film that was lacking from the leads.

Matt Reeves deserves credit for having made the film interesting, even for those who've seen the original. Dialogue is obviously not his strong suit, but he was able to play on the expectations of those who've seen the original. He often let the audience hang in the balance, even though they knew what to expect. I suspect the long lead up to the iconic pool scene was devised specifically with those who've seen the original in mind. It's tough to build suspence for people who know what's coming. He also managed to open the film in an interesting way, and introduce some interesting Americanizations. The Ronald Reagan speech leitmotif was interesting, though not quite exploited to full effect.

The real stars of Let Me In were not the actors, or the director. The photography and sound units stole the show. Greig Fraser did a masterful job of matching the medium to the motif. The camera lens had the feel of a window onto the cold winter mise en scene. Long cuts at times made it feel as though the camera were frozen into place. The camera constantly blurred in and out of focus, like a window frosting over, and defrosting. I've yet to see a cinematographer so effectively capture frigidity through the use of lenses. Unbearable heat has been captured many a time, but this was actually quite novel. The sound crew was able to create a stark contrast through periods of quite, and ratcheting music. The Reagan leitmotifs were especially well done, cutting into the silence with prophetic ruminations about good and evil. I can't think of a better usage of sampling in film off the top of my head.

Though imperfect, Let Me In is a must see, especially if you've seen one too many of the lame vampire movies that have been flooding theatres. Part edge of your seat thriller, part social commentary, it is among the most exciting wide releases of the year.


The Other Guys (2010)

★ ★ 1/2

Full disclosure: I am not a big Will Ferrell fan. Night at the Roxbury was one of the funniest movies of the 90s, but I find that he tries to hard to fit his persona into every role he plays--like a less funny Adam Sandler. While there were glipses of this in The Other Guys, it actually worked out pretty well for once. Though it wasn't the kind of uproarious comedy it was billed as, it had its moments.

While I'm inserting caveats, I should also ad that I'm not big on Mark Wahlberg. Not that he's a bad actor. He just doesn't tend to pick great roles. Like Ferrell, he actually fit this role well. Wahlberg as a wannabe action hero and Ferrell as an accountant with a seedy past somehow seems appropriate.

On the face of it, the movie is as simple as it gets. A couple of desk jockies trying to bust the bad guys. However, there were some fairly obvious anti-corporate themes lurking in the foreground. After all, bankers ripping off a police pension fund isn't exactly politically neutral. In an odd twist, the movie attempted to explain the financial crisis (incorrectly) by flashing a bunch of graphs and factoids on the screen during the credits. I've never seen a movie get MORE political during the credits. Definitely a movie that's quite in line with the zeitgeist.