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john cribbs

   for the most overrated "underrated" movie of the decade

When I give out this award every year, I think of one of those "100 Greatest Movies You've Never Seen" or "50 Excellent Films You've Never Heard Of Mr. Fancy Pants" or "Think You're a Film Expert Just Because You've Seen The Godfather Twenty-Seven Times Well Guess What Slick Here's a Bunch of Shit I Can Guaran-fuckin-tee You Couldn't Pick Out of Some Kind of Obscure Movie Lineup and Guess What They're All Fuckin Great and Now I'm Gonna Tell You All About Them You Lucky Bastard"-style books. One movie that pops up in all those books is Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, a quirky sophisticated comedy-drama set in Ireland. And all these professional film recommenders will tell you it's the most amazing secret underground masterpiece that you need a special code and complicated handshake in order to gain access to. And... it's not that great. It's fine. There's nothing wrong with it, I can remember two or three nice moments in there. But the fact that it's been canonized as the Ultimate Sleeper unjustly ignored by the world upon its release but *wink* *wink* "we all know it's a masterpiece right everybody?" just doesn't sit right with me.

Thus I dedicate this yearly award to that particular movie, as there are so many films that receive the same kind of cool to cold reception from the critical masses - and deserve it - until a gaggle of enthusiasts make it their own personal cause célèbre and dare people to give it another chance, even though it doesn't deserve it. Literally, underrated movies that subsquently became overrated. So I looked over the last ten years and came up with the film I can most see appearing in that same "Great Movies YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF BECAUSE IT WAS NAILED TO A CROSS AND LEFT TO DIE EVEN THOUGH IT WAS OUR MOVIE SAVIOR" books, and one whose revisionist campaign at the time seemed most out of whack when its original reviews were more or less right on the money. In that spirit, the Local Hero Award for the Decade goes to...


Wonder Boys.
(Curtis Hanson, 2000)

Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, which was the big follow-up to his celebrated first book, the movie was also Curtis Hanson's anticipated next project after his 1997 breakthrough with LA Confidential. So there was a lot of early hype despite the title making it sound like some spin-off of "The Wonder Years," or a Hollywood adaptation of the Wonder Twins from Super Friends. But for some reason the studio dropped it in a February death slot; bland reviews and its invisible advertising saw it sink shortly after take-off, prompting some critics to question "Wonder Whatever Happened to Them Boys?" (note: not really.) A little later in the year there was a sudden buzz - defenders of the film like Roger Ebert and Emanuel Levy championed it as a hastily discarded masterwork and others followed suit. Even Richard Corliss clarified his dismissive review by deeming it an "honorable failure." The filmmakers themselves became so convinced that the movie's commercial belly flop was due to mis-marketing - Hanson and producer Scott Rudin went so far as to blame the poster - that they convinced Paramont to give the film an unprecedented second release in November so it could find an audience and vie for all the Oscars it so richly deserved. It bombed all over again. However, its award campaign was successful: the movie and Michael Douglas received Golden Globe nominations while the screenplay and Dede Allen's editing got Oscar nods, not to mention notice from several critics circles (Bob Dylan's crappy song from the movie racked up a slew of statuettes.)

Something in this feels like when a pal of yours finally breaks up with his horrible girlfriend. You pat him on the back and explain that she has actually been quite horrible for some time, he was just under an evil spell and now he's cured. Then just a few weeks later they're back together, and he's saying how he didn't realize how great she was, and he would be lost without her. And you shake your head thinking "No dude you were right - she's terrible!" I don't know what prompted so many people's 180 on Wonder Boys. it's literally nothing, an uncomplicated story that drops literary references to spice it up and - as Sideways would do later in the decade - drop a few sequences of goofy comedy into the otherwise straight-faced proceedings. Themes of self-exploration, integrity, ambition, relationships and higher education take a backseat to Michael Douglas running around in a pink robe and Robert Downey Jr.'s catty, lecherous literary agent (this movie teamed up with Fur, Gothika and The Soloist to mar the actor's otherwise spectacular decade.) The movie features that "typed, singular manuscript gets destroyed" moment from the George Bush "Simpson" episode and Woody Allen's Celebrity that belongs in a Neil Simon comedy. But it's just those kind of tired eccentricities that make it possible to visualize its place in one of those "Great Movies You've Never Seen" books: "Charming little dramedy has Michael Douglas in an underrated performance playing a has-been writer whose career insecurities inadvertently lead to a colleague's treasured Marilyn Monroe jacket being stolen. Hijinks ensue! Tobey Maguire glums it up, Katie Holmes is in there to keep it from being a total sausage fest and if you don't know who directed it I guarantee you won't be able to guess." Hanson would go on to further damage his auteuristic cred with In Her Shoes and Lucky You, two other movies people inexplicably praised despite their indefatigable mediocrity (and 8 Mile was nothing special either.)

One final note: maybe if they had changed the title to Wonder Boyz for its re-release it might have appealed to a wider range of demographics. Oh well.



futro: (fu'tro) adj. referring to any stylistic elements intended to be futuristic but in fact being unmistakably "of their own time." A portmanteau word combining "retro" and "futuristic." (exam: the Delorean car line was designed to look like it came from the not-too-distant future, but is unmistakably a product of the early 1980's.)

And the award goes to...the single-bladed fan in I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004.)



I won't say much about this beyond pointing out that, yes, I am dude and, yeah, sometimes a little skin doesn't hurt a movie (sometimes it does, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary is the official winner of the Decade's Maggie Gyllenhaal Award for Least Appealing Nude Scene. Congratulations Maggie!)

Eva Green in The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003.)

Bertolucci's main contribution to cinema over the last 20 years since his Oscar win for The Last Emperor has been to get as many good looking ladies as possible into his movies and immediately disrobe them. Fair enough. Bridget Fonda, Liv Tyler, Rachel Weisz, Thandie Newton, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi... personally, I can't think of a better way to use your critical clout than to make mediocre movies essentially as excuses to placate the audience with fleshy eye candy. But he really hit his stride with Dreamers, which not only introduced the world to the lovely Eva Green and her wonderful talent(s) but made sure that almost every scene was a sex scene, a bathtub scene or a "lounging around bein' nekkid" scene. The image of Green as the Venus de Milo, topless with dark sleeves against a black background, belongs in a museum next to its template. That her character is introduced impersonating Jean Seberg from Breathless, later reenacts the record-setting run through the Louvre from Band of Outsiders and thinks about a romantic Robert Bresson suicide as she's trying to end her own life only makes her character all the more attractive. C'est magnifique!


   five unnerving scenes set around swimming pools

1. In My Skin.
(Marina de van, 2003)

Having just siddled up poolside to a recently-bested rival co-worker to gloat a little, Marina de van's Esther is unaware of the gang of guys gathering around her until they pull her up off her feet. They laugh as they make their way to the water to dunk her in playfully and she screams in terror for them to put her down. She looks to her co-worker for help, but the woman just looks away. In the scuffle Esther's leg wound - which has become such a point of private fascination for her recently - begins to bleed, causing the pranksters to drop her on the ground and beat a quick exit. Lying there bleeding, exposed and indirectly defeated by her enemy, Esther's shock and humiliation are as harrowing as the aftermath of a rape scene. That this is the most uncomfortable scene in the movie to watch, especially considering what comes later, is a testament to its effectiveness. (More on this exceptional film later in the series.)


2. La Cienaga.
(2001, Lucrecia Martel)

The opening scene where middle-aged Mecha stumbles to escape the rain that's begun to ripple on the surface of her dirty, uncleaned pool and, in a drunken stupor, falls and scrapes her knee on the concrete. The legs of metal chairs scrape on the patio as her similiarly bloated, boozed-up friends struggle to help her up and the blood spills all over the gravel. What could be more depressing?


3. Let the Right One In.
(2008, Thomas Alfredson)

The climatic scene in which the bully's older, nastier brother is holding Oskar underwater at knife-point under the public pool. Muffled commotion from the surface. The hand keeping Oskar underwater surrenders its grip and floats away, detached from arm and body. A decapitated head follows. In the distant shallow end, a pair of kicking legs appears in the water before they're violently pulled across the length of the pool. Oskar's dazed, near-drowned form is hoisted up to safety by his savior: Eli, an ancient vampire in the body of a pale girl who has become his personal savior. Blood and bodies are strewn across the place, as the sole survivor of the bully's gang sobs over on the side.


4. She's One of Us.
(Siegrid Alnoy, 2005)

The supervisor of a weird, possibly delusional woman working at a temp agency tries to get her out of the apartment by inviting her to the public pool. No sooner has she stepped out to the edge looking awkward in her one-piece suit, the temp is pushed in by some ruffian - she emerges from the water and flees. Finding her in a hallway above the pool, the supervisor offers a supportive hand on the shoulder, which the temp answers with a brutal push that sends her boss into the wall. The horrible sound and visual of the supervisor moaning and clutching the back her head as she writhes in a fetal position against the windows revealing the swimmers below continues for several moments before the temp inches toward her against the wall, whispering "stop... stop crying" before delivering a fatal blow with a fire extinguisher. Better wax off the ol' resume!


5. Water Lilies.
(Céline Sciamma, 2008)

When a young girl becomes obsessed with an older, popular student on the school's synchronized swimming team she starts stalking her around the locker room and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. Although derivative (this is kind of like a lite version of Innocence with a Catherine Breillat character added for good measure) the movie has some notable magical/creepy moments such as when the wallflower views the team voyeuristically, and upside down, beneath the surface of the pool.


Honorary mention: Swimfan (Jonathan Polson, 2002.)

Swim team hotshot Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) lets himself be seduced by new student Madison Bell (Erika Christensen, whose character is described as having a Southern accent despite the fact she doesn't have one) in his school's lap pool. Her obsession over this speedo jock - doesn't she know he's with Amy?? - leads to framing him for steroid use moments before an important meet and leaving his swim buddy's dead body in the pool for him to find. And of course the big finale where she kidnaps his girlfriend takes place at the same pool... geez, did they write this script around the location or what?



And two mentions for scenes set around swimming pools that are just too silly to be effectively eerie (both seemingly influenced by Jaws):

Little Children (Todd Field, 2006), in which the dreaded return of a notorious neighborhood pedophile occurs at the public pool - Jackie Earle Haley gets in the water and parents clear their little ones out so quickly it's like someone dropped a baracuda in there (the sight of him surfacing to see the mortified moms and dads holding their vulnerable tykes close is a little too comedic to be disturbing)...

and Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009), where the Eldest Daughter has recently been exposed to Spielberg's shark story (the first movie she's ever seen) and proceeds to "eat" her siblings as they wade unsuspectingly in the family pool.

Sorry Ozon - you had an entire movie called Swimming Pool (2003) but somehow failed to make the list!


to be continued in BEST OF THE DECADE PART II...

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