9. Zack Snyder
If one expresses admiration or even significant love for a specific Snyder film, don’t be surprised to hear them utter hatred and disdain upon another of his filmography. Strange, seeing it isn’t as though Snyder is an inaccessible unconventional auteur in the vain of Malick or Refn: he makes films adapted from comic books.
In 2007’s widely humoured punch line 300, Snyder crafted a film dedicated entirely to sequence, an overly stylized experience of bloody violence and carnage, under brass grandiose and fervour. Whether this was a good or bad thing happened to spark disagreement. But let’s merely define the widespread response to 300 like this: the film received a standing ovation at its public premiere, and was widely panned at its press screening. Is anyone genuinely confused?
But now, since of course no one should attempt a critique on any filmmaker based upon 300, other works are required to judge Snyder’s merits, and observation regarding the critical trends surrounding his filmography. Three films made within the last six years by Zach Snyder have provoked a very distinct response from critics.
In 2009’s Watchmen, an adaptation of the critically acclaimed, and absolutely beloved, 1980s graphic novel classic, was beset with a highly mixed reaction from fans and critics alike. In fact, it would be very easy to slide in Watchmen as one of the most polarising films, so far, of the 21st century. No matter how one personally reacted to Snyder’s Watchmen’s existence, Geoff Boucher’s words on the film can make a bid for potentially encouraging unanimous agreement amongst viewers.
Boucher claims Watchmen was, “nothing less than the boldest popcorn movie ever made. Snyder somehow managed to get a major studio to make a movie with no stars, no ‘name’ superheroes and a hard R-rating”. That is, unless one opts for the cynical view that the Hollywood studios were just thoroughly confident enough in the film’s success based on title recognition alone, or even in the confidence a phrase like “from the director of 300” can have on a product’s blockbuster success. As we learnt, of course, this wasn’t enough to make the title an overwhelming, or even notable, commercial success.
Moving on to his next film in 2011, when one learns of this film, Sucker Punch, being described by Mark Kermode himself to be “the most boring, ploddingly put together, infantile, crass, adolescent, stupid, chauvinistic twaddle that I’ve sat through in a very, very long time”, it immediately inspires, that is, following an attempt to track down the inevitably rather humourous audio review on YouTube, the investigation of fellow critical voices.
More interesting, one then finds, when taking into account Sucker Punch’s negative reception in the critics’ corner, than the clamour surrounding the film’s artistic failures, were the common accusations toward its moral and ethical repugnancy concerning its treatment of women.
That being said, judging from the amount of derision Sucker Punch actually received for its treatment of women, and it received plenty, it started to look less like a bandwagon, and more like Snyder might have genuinely struck an emotional nerve amongst a large majority of its potential viewers.
Unlike other blatant critical accusations of misogyny, like Michael Phillips slanderously deeming it a, “greasy collection of near-rape fantasies and violent revenge scenarios disguised as a female-empowerment fairy tale”, Monica Bartyzel took the approach of properly gauging the title when she mused, “Though they are given vicious snarls, swords and guns, the leading ladies of Snyder’s latest are nothing more than cinematic figures of enslavement given only the most minimal fight.”
Bartyzel, noting at least an (pathetic, perhaps) attempt at female empowerment in Sucker Punch, saw it as an attempt and failure, regarding the subject, rather than an outright misogynistic attack, as Philips implies.
And now, 2013’s Man of Steel consistently, over a year and a half since its release, continually raises tiresome nerdish debates over its perceived quality. Did Snyder grace upon us a realistic view of the Man of Tomorrow, and the repercussions of super-powered demigods in our modern world, or merely a long, grey piece of faux-Nolan?
But opinions are opinions. Whether Zach Snyder’s films represent narratives or teenage male wet dreams is up for you to decide.
10. Terrence Malick
It is daunting to tackle any kind of written discussion on Terrence Malick. It is funny, because with Terrence Malick exists a filmmaker with whom one can sound like the grandest of fools whether they be gushing with praise for his visual perfection and absolute aesthetic indulgence, and what this supposedly speaks about the wider world, or deriding him for ‘pretentiousness’, crafting work intended solely for hardened critics, and, most importantly, that which secures him a place on this esteemed listing.
So, therefore, as to act as mindful and professional as possible, personal feelings and attitudes toward Malick’s filmography (which would constitute too great and too extensive and specific an unnecessary passage of writing to truly ascertain) have been eschewed entirely, and in particular when compared to the former entries within this piece.
Instead of playing the fool, we shall laugh, and also analyse, how others have perceived Malick’s esotericism, artistry, and his extraordinarily talent at, if anything whatsoever, polarising academics whom normally would huddle together in a hushed sweat to gawk over one of his earlier titles.
Dave Kehr wrote (in retrospective) of Badlands, “a film so rich in ideas it hardly knows where to turn”, a minor dissenting voice in a sea of adoration and flattery. One might be surprised to discover Badlands, the conception of career for Terrence, is his most widely loved amongst the critics, or at least the one with the least notable detractors, both on its release and within hindsight writings.
Jay Socks noted the inevitable comparison to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde within Badlands, but was unfavourable to its naming as a “companion piece” but rather an “elaboration and reply”. The esteemed individuals responsible for the star-crossed lovers of Malick’s screenplay, Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, have both revered the title.
Spacek claims it responsible for a newfound mindset within her acting philosophy: “The artist rules…nothing else matters”. Truly, this is a ruling perspective in regard to summoning adoration for America’s most distinct convention-killer. Martin Sheen adored the film’s screenplay, citing it as the finest he had ever read, and certainly of his career (a career, as of 1999 when I quote him, had included collaborations with the written workmanship of Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and John Briley). He notably mused, “It was extremely American, it caught the spirit of the people, of the culture, in a way that was immediately identifiable.”
Malick followed Badlands in 1978 with Days of Heaven, a title that provoked the first of many heated reactions in his career. Dave Kehr, previously sceptical towards Badlands’ complete artistic success, approved entirely of Malick’s sophomore effort, believing, “The result is a film that hovers just beyond our grasp: mysterious, beautiful, and, very possibly, a masterpiece”.
On the other hand, Monica gauged it a film wherein “the story becomes secondary to the visuals”, to which Gene Siskel unintentionally prepared a response. “I suppose it is, but, frankly, you don’t think about it while the movie is playing”, candidly spoke Ebert’s esteemed curmudgeon companion. Harold C. Schonberg expressed negative sentiment in the vein of Monica, fretting Days of Heaven to be “what basically is a conventional plot is all kinds of fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques.” A polarising title indeed, to the extent wherein it even spurred one, Nick Schager, to deem it the greatest film of all time (with reflection in 2007).
Who can say what happened afterward, because after Malick crafted what, today, has been slapped the responsibility of living up the expectations of his feasible masterpiece, he took an extended leave from the filmmaking world, before re-emerging in 1998 with The Thin Red Line (information on what he did during these ‘between’ years is rather scarce).
Storming back onto the scene like the battle-weary American platoon of his comeback’s narrative content, to outweigh even, to some, Spielberg’s fellow, more melodramatic, Second World War outfit of the same year, Malick’s return was hailed by many as a grasp of cinematic excellence.
Gene Siskel certainly believed it supplanted Saving Private Ryan, naming it the best contemporary war film he had ever seen. His beloved chubby companion Roger Ebert was also enthusiastic, but far less so, clamouring “The movie’s schizophrenia keeps it from greatness (this film has no firm idea of what it is about), but doesn’t make it bad… Actors like Sean Penn, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin find the perfect tone for scenes of a few seconds or a minute, and then are dropped before a rhythm can be established”.
Others like Charles Taylor dismissed it as an affair which “Dispenses with plot, characterization, dramatic structure and emotional payoffs in favour of the sort of painstakingly composed pictorial diddling that invariably gets critics frothing about the director’s ‘indelible’ images.”
The New World, released in 2005, carried more critical confusion along with it. For every Mick LeSalle deeming it a “masterpiece”, and for every Ebert solidifying his view of Malick as a “visionary”, we had Stephen Hunter decreeing it “stately to the point of being static” and Joe Morgenstern deriding it as “sluggish” and “emotionally remote”.
But it was in the current decade, 2011 specifically, wherein even the most ardent and art-flustered of critics were engaged in some of the more fierce partisan debate ever encountered in recent film history, certainly within this century. That film was, of course, The Tree of Life.
First off, if any specific film denotes the stereotype wherein each critical write-up of a Malick film unleashes their inner-fool it is this one. Receiving both intense boos and passionate cheers at its premiere at Cannes, and controversially receiving the Palme d’Or (courtesy of jury head Robert de Niro), The Tree of Life underwent a divided reception.
Roger Ebert’s love for it was so intense, not only did America’s favourite moviegoer seriously consider a comparison to Kubrick and 2001, but was contained inside the final ‘ten greatest films’ list he submitted in his lifetime. Peter Bradshaw christened it “mad and magnificent”, Justin Chang felt it “represents something extraordinary”, and Peter Travers was compelled to announce it a “groundbreaker”.
From the opposite spectrum, and a terrifying (reasonable) spectrum it was, Sukhdev Sandhu claimed it “self-absorbed”, Lee Marshall was unfavourable toward a film he considered to “(preach) to directly to its audience”, while Stephanie Zacharek slandered it a “a gargantuan work of pretension”.
The following year, Malick was actually beset with reviews leading in one direction. To one’s surprise, and another’s smirk, To the Wonder was doused in a predominantly mixed-to-negative reception. Certainly it didn’t make much of a severe impact on the critical community, since it is, arguably, most famous for being the final title reviewed by Roger Ebert prior to his passing.
Ebert was one of the minority, heavily praising Malick as “surely one of the most romantic and spiritual of filmmakers, appears almost naked here before his audience, a man not able to conceal the depth of his vision”.
Some of the negative commentary passed upon Malick’s, most recent as of February 2015, includes Jim Schembri’s deduction that it “feels like a parody of an art-house movie”, Louise Keller deriding “far too obtuse and self-indulgent to satisfy even the most romantic”, Richard Roeper’s saddening “We should not be exiting a Terrence Malick movie with a shrug”, and J. R. Jones’ “There’s a little too much wonder and not quite enough story in this middling effort from Terrence Malick.”
Perhaps Malick has done more than represent the definition offered here that so brands a ‘style over substance’ filmmaker. Perhaps he has rendered the concept a permissible one, one wherein, if any audience, and any critic, chooses to shut off their preconceived ideas of quality and formula of what can constitute aesthetic greatness, they will find much value in any one individual expression’s perceived esotericism.
Author Bio: Charles Barnes graduated highschool determined to leave the world of faux-intellectuals behind him, absorbing himself into an excessive gorging of cinema, determined to develop an individual, distinctive, voice in the world of film analysis and criticism. Working at a video shop, watching and writing about film in his spare time, the Australian teen is determined to put his name firmly in the history of Australian film criticism and theory.