There’s an old saying at the Playlist Mansion: you do not truly know a person until you’ve asked them to chose the one film they feel was most overrated and the one they feel was most underrated in any given year. It’s not very catchy. But it is a credo with a surprising amount of wisdom in it, as well as the welcome potential for our beloved, esteemed and generally faultless contributors to make complete public fools of themselves. It’s a wildly subjective and always controversial list, but often interesting things can come out of considering a film not just in terms of its standing-on-its-own-two-feet quality, but in the context of the noise around it — whether that has been deafening, appreciative, muted or snarky. So much so, in fact that we’ve a regular podcast, Over/Under Movies dedicated to such discussion, and there’ll be a year-end episode of that coming soon.
Here, then, is an unlucky-for-some 13-strong cross-section of our contributorship, individually talking about the films they felt got too much or too little shine over the year. And its purpose, apart from entertaining you, dear reader, is twofold: it shows us as the eclectic and passionate bunch we are, and it unites us in ganging up on one, possibly two, staffers and making the “craycray” gesture behind their backs for the entirety of 2017. No prizes for guessing who that’s going to be once you read the selections below.
Overrated: “Everybody Wants Some!!”
If there was ever a film that was clearly not made for these times, its Richard Linklater’s superfluously exclamation-pointed “Everybody Wants Some!!” To be fair, it’s not the director’s fault his latest film came in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and an increasingly voluble conversation about the need for more diversity on screen. However, it’s entirely Linklater’s fault that his tale of a bunch of (mostly) white dudes waiting for college to start and playing baseball is so ferociously dull and unfunny. Billing it as a “spiritual sequel” to 1993’s “Dazed and Confused” only underscores how much Linklater seemingly completely misunderstands his own his cult hit film. Where that film gave us a coming-of-age story from the perspective of the outcasts and those bucking against suburban traditions, “Everybody Wants Some!!” sees us follow a bunch of very attractive guys, who already seem to have it all figured out, and it weirdly manages to give its women in even less agency. I guess if you want to see yet another movie about (mostly) white dudes having keggers, hitting on girls, and uh, discovering that punk rock exists, that’s cool, but let’s not pretend the film’s insights into that fragile time before college and adult life starts are even remotely profound.
Underrated: “The Phenom”
A movie that many probably forgot was released or even knew existed, “The Phenom” is a baseball movie that’s not really about baseball, which might be why it had a hard time finding an audience. Written and directed by Noah Buschel (“Glass Chin”), “The Phenom” follows Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a pitching sensation who has a breakdown on the mound, and with mounting doubts about his talents, sees sports psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) to try and get to the root of his issues. What emerges is the story of an athlete pushed by his abusive father (a deliciously volatile Ethan Hawke) to make the most of his talents, with “The Phenom” wrestling with the uncomfortable notion that sometimes tough, violent love has productive ends. Well performed and beautifully shot (a baseball setpiece scored to Tchaikovksy is one for the ages), Buschel’s film went undeservedly unnoticed. It’s truly of the year’s best hidden gems — psychologically rich, and wholly original — don’t miss it.
Overrated: “Star Trek Beyond”
The tragedy of “Star Trek Beyond,” the unseemly CG-calamity from a director of no less than four “Fast And Furious” films, is not necessarily that it’s a terrible film (it isn’t) or an undeserved box office smash (it wasn’t), but that it was pretty frequently touted as one of the best blockbusters of the summer, and for the most part it was. Which, to be clear, says a lot about ‘Beyond,’ but even more about the state of tentpole pictures in 2016: not only are studios churning out an incredible glut of senseless and obscenely stupid movies, but we audiences are continually lowering our standards. ‘Beyond,’ which is held up by the breezy, witty script from Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, is a rote story that’s weighed down by a huge, nondescript cast of characters (for all everyone is done up as one alien or another, it sure is hard to tell who the hell is who) and another bland, poorly motivated baddie. All of which leaves the film with nothing particularly interesting or relevant to say. For something that ought to be a piece of pure escapism, it sure is hard to escape the sense that everyone, at this point, is just contractually phoning it in.
Underrated: “The Dark Horse”
To be fair, “The Dark Horse” is not exactly underrated by those who have seen it. James Napier Robertson’s film, which was released in 2014 in its native New Zealand, has racked up a considerable critical consensus, and for good reason. Still, the film was criminally underseen and thus criminally forgotten. Following the real-life Māori speed chess player, Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), who suffered from severe bipolar disorder and went on to found a celebrated chess club for underprivileged kids called The Eastern Knights, “The Dark Horse” is an understated, emotional powerhouse of a film. Compassionately realized, and grounded by a towering, tender performance by Curtis, it’s a film that simmers with a manic energy that never boils over (despite all the melodramatic potential). And for a film about chess, it never overuses the metaphors, nor does it ever give way to its crowd pleasing premise; for all Genesis manages to achieve, never does the film downplay the reality of poverty or the emotional severity of depression. Instead, “The Dark Horse” casts a light on the capacity for genius in everyone and the good buried in even the darkest places. Check it out, mate…
Overrated: “Rules Don’t Apply”
November 2016. What a time to be alive, what a time for Warren Beatty to drop his endlessly gestating Howard Hughes biopic “Rules Don’t Apply.” Yes, what audiences were really in the mood for at that moment was a two-plus hour romp through the later years of a narcissistic, mentally ill heir to a huge fortune who uses daddy’s money to disrupt the entertainment industry and the federal government. But it’s not entirely fair to blame the political climate for the bad taste in your mouth left by “Rules Don’t Apply.” The movie is bad enough to do that on it’s own. This hectic, annoying meander through the less interesting part of the Hollywood mogul’s life is an overstuffed mess, thanks to the atrociously bad editing, credited to no fewer than four editors, coupled with the terrible soundtrack cribbed from an oldies CD Beatty found under his couch. Not to mention the embarrassing sex scene between Beatty and the adorable Lily Collins (Golden Globe nominated for her efforts). Despite a plethora of beloved actors filling every role (Paul Schneider with a terrible fake tan, the girl from “Smash,” and the best part of the movie, Annette Bening, sent away 20 minutes in), audiences stayed far, far away, and with good reason. Despite the Herculean efforts of poor Alden Ehrenreich and Collins, this stinker was worse than even its bad reviews.
Listen, did I think I’d end up at the end of the year being the one critic to die on the hill for “Warcraft”? Absolutely not and in fairness, my first underrated pick (“How to Be Single”) was taken. However, yes, I gave “Warcraft” a positive review when it came out, and even went to see it a second time on my own dime and had fun — I didn’t choose this “Warcraft” life, it chose me. The thing about Duncan Jones’ ambitious orc epic is that if you’ve ever wanted to step inside the cover of an ‘80s heavy metal album, that’s what this movie feels like. That’s a cinematic experience I enjoy, I’ve discovered. Do I want to see an orc ride a giant snow wolf while chopping down humans in oversized shiny armor? HELL YES. The critical odds were always stacked against this multi-player online role-playing game adaptation, so no one really gave it a chance, but Travis Fimmel is deceptively great, and Ben Schnetzer should have a CW spinoff. Not to mention that Jones manages to nail the emotional component with the motion-capture orcs: Toby Kebbell as Durotan should be on our best performances of the year list to be entirely honest. It’s super cartoonish, hardcore deep fantasy stuff that’s yes, super cheesy, but still really fun, if you let your guard down. Come on people, Ben Foster goes to full Ben Foster intensity playing a RAD WIZARD in this movie! The fact that I still don’t have a t-shirt with Medivh airbrushed on it is a travesty. In conclusion, “Warcraft” is the most metal movie of 2016 and I’m sad for you if you can’t have fun with that. Don’t @ me.
Oktay Ege Kozak
Underrated: “Pete’s Dragon”
If it was released in the 80s, or even the early 90s, indie up-and-comer David Lowery’s loose remake of “Pete’s Dragon” would have been instantly hailed as a heartwarming and awe-inspiring family classic, on par with “E.T.” and other Spielberg-infused mainstream kids’ entertainment that miraculously captured, without condescension or cynicism, a child’s imagination. Alas, in our contemporary world where our ceaseless need for self-referential nostalgia and aversion to experiencing basic emotions without having to undercut them with irony made it inevitable for this downright lovely story to play second banana to the pretty but instantly forgettable “The Jungle Book.” Lowery takes the core premise of the colorful and goofy original and turns the story of an orphaned child’s friendship with a dragon (spectacularly designed and animated in this version) into a simple yet effective study on a child’s inherent need for a family. By underplaying the film’s nostalgic elements (it’s an obvious period piece but doesn’t clarify what year it takes place in), Lowery creates a bona fide example of the kind of old school family entertainment he clearly loves. In a way, the fact that it’s not an obvious throwback makes it the perfect throwback.
Overrated: “The Jungle Book”
Yes, the CGI was seamless and terrific, and director Jon Favreau managed to extract an entertaining modern adventure out of Disney’s fun but admittedly episodic animated classic. However, “The Jungle Book”s pedigree as a supposed benchmark for future unnecessary live action remakes (or, let’s face it, CG with a couple of live-action elements) of beloved animated Disney films was overhyped by most critics. “The Jungle Book” is a fairly satisfying yet inconsequential piece of mainstream family entertainment. Even though the gritty and darker look was vastly different from the original’s bright and playful color scheme, it played things safe by rehashing the elements audiences loved from the 1967 film without really adding anything new or exciting. It was so dedicated in its mission to aimlessly stoke the audience’s nostalgia, that it shoehorned bafflingly brief versions of some of the best-known musical numbers from the original, regardless of whether or not its bleaker tone and straightforward narrative invited such a sudden shift into song and dance territory. Especially compared to the more original and heartfelt “Pete’s Dragon”, “The Jungle Book” ended up as a beautiful but unnecessary distraction.