In Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Heart of Darkness, her husband Francis laments, “Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie. I mean a movie that aspires for something really terrific and doesn’t pull it off is shit, it’s scum…and everyone will walk on it as such.”
Of course Coppola is saying that he’d rather make a pretentious film than one that doesn’t strive for anything. He certainly made his fare share of both, but he was onto something. The years following this recent millenium have ushered in some strange societal changes and it’s been hard for cinema to keep up.
The films on this list certainly qualify as pretentious, some, not all, are quite enjoyable and fascinating. There presence here doesn’t mean they didn’t try. It simply means they flew too close to cinema’s sun.
9. Southland Tales
The crème de la crème of 21st century pretension. A mad fever dream of Bush Era anxiety and Hollywood excess. Richard Kelly will always be known as the man behind Donnie Darko, his first film that immediately became a modern cult classic. For his follow up, he was given more money and access to some of the most popular stars of the early 2000s. What he produced is one of the most incoherent, muddled and perhaps brilliant pieces of science fiction satire.
To describe the plot would be Herculean task. Fortunately, the film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who would go on to play Hercules a few years later. Johnson plays an amnesiac action star named Boxer Santaros who wants to make a film from a screenplay that, essentially, is Southland Tales and predicts the events to follow. The film is set in the (then) near future of 2008 where the world is in the midst of a World War on Terror and energy crisis. A German company introduces a process for endless renewable energy pulled from the ocean’s current.
Unfortunately, it’s also slowing down Earth’s rotation and ripping holes in space/time continuum. Sean William Scott plays twins Roland and Ronald Tavener who may just be the same person. Sarah Michelle Gellar plays an ex-pornstar trying to start her own reality tv-series. Meanwhile, a scarred ex-veteran played by Justin Timberlake watches over these events while doing drugs and lip-syncing The Killer’s “These Things I’ve Done” with a bunch of dancers in pleather nurse costumes.
Southland was an epic bomb at the box office and killed off most of the clout that Kelly had after Donnie. Part of what makes the film so confusing is that the film was only part of the story and that Kelly also put out a comic book that lays the groundwork. Apparently, he expected the movie-going public to also buy the comic, not realizing that people don’t like doing homework. The film is undoubtedly a mess, but in a beautiful train wreck sort of way.
Watching it now, it feels like Kelly really was tapping into a certain insanity that comes from the unhealthy relationship between the media, government, and military-industrial complex, not to mention the influx of off-the-rails conspiracy theories. Southland Tales is incredibly pretentious, yet it never gets in the way of having a good, bad-shit crazy time.
David Cronenberg’s heady and talky adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel of the same name is no easy feat to get through. It is a dense, didactic investigation of the modern capitalism featuring characters that seemed holy removed from their own humanity. The pairing of Cronenberg and DeLillo is a match made in some bizarre, alternate dimension. Cronenberg clearly has a firm grasp of the complex material discussed in DeLillo’s book. The problem is it might be too firm of a grasp.
The film takes places largely inside the decked-out limo of a young financial speculator, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), unfolding over one eventful, traffic-filled day in which Packer wishes to get a haircut. Along the way Packer has visits from numerous consultants, employees, doctors and his own wife as he slowly hemorrhages a vast amount of his fortune. Outside of his hermetically sealed paradise, the streets are filled with anit-capitalist protests and an unknown stalker who aims to kill Packer.
As enthralling as that may sound, so much of this film is Packer conversing rather esoterically about money and the market. The general crux of what the film is saying is that capitalism has grown so complex that it has lead humanity away from anything remotely human, where society is now unable to comprehend and connect with itself.
Many fans of the Twilight series innocently piled in to the theaters to see what Mr. Pattinson was up to next. Quite a few walked out scratching their head. Cosmopolis is a fascinating piece of Cronenberg’s filmography. Where so many films on this list don’t have enough to say, this film has just the opposite problem. It doesn’t know when to shut up.
Some have said the whole point of the film is to completely distance itself from the audience, to be so cold as to not allow the viewer any chance to connect. If this is the case then Cosmopolis deserves full marks and a Mission Accomplished banner hung out on an aircraft carrier.
7. Dear Wendy
Once again, Lars Von Trier peeks his bald head up in this list. This time as the screenwriter for Thomas Vinterberg’s bizarre commentary on guns in America. Perhaps Von Trier was trying to recreate a bit of the strange magic that made some of his American-set films such as Dogville and Dancer in the Dark so effective.
Like those, Wendy is set in the American South but filmed entirely in Copenhagen which gives the whole piece a strange, off feel. Unfortunately, Vinterberg’s direction isn’t up to the task of making Von Trier’s writing engaging or particularly interesting and the social critique lands with a thud.
The film is set in a small West Virginia town where a teenager, Dick, comes across a antique gun. He quickly forms a bond with the weapon and before long, he’s amassed a group of like-minded teens who all feel true love and affection for their, mostly, antiquated firearms. The hitch is that they are all pacifist and rather than use their pistols for harm, they gain confidence and pride by simply carrying the concealed weapons.
Not only that, they brand themselves The Dandies, dress up in foppish costumes, practicing trick shots and watching firearm instructional videos. They eventually run afoul with the local sheriff (Bill Pullman) and the film ends with a seemingly unnecessary shootout as they escort Dick’s old nanny to the supermarket.
If that sounds a bit contrived and strange, it is. The film’s plot is so forced and random and one gets the feeling that Von Trier and Vinterberg wanted to make a film where teenagers play dress-up with guns but couldn’t figure out why.
Instead of making sense, the film falls back on it’s “artsy” nature to explain away any questions. There are certainly interesting flourishes and the film is worth a watch, especially for how the shootout is staged and executed. That being said, it is ultimately an unsatisfying and failed effort by two filmmakers who made far better films both before and after.
6. Happy Endings
Don Roos’ particularly bland and formulaic Indie dramedy is without question the least interesting film on this list. Like Babel, another mid-2000’s piece of hyperlink cinema that tries, and fails, to make some vague statement about people by following a bunch of desperate stories that are barely hinged together. The only thing of note are the fine performances by Maggie Gyllenhal, Steve Coogan and a surprising dramtic turn by Tom Arnold and Lisa Kudrow.
Set in modern Los Angeles, the film tracks three different storylines. The first of which is Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) who meets Nicky, a young aspiring filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who has information about the son she gave up for adoption. Mamie’s gay stepbrother, Charley is dealing with his own adoption issues along with his partner while one of Charley’s closeted employees Otis (Jason Ritter) gets involved with a free-spirited young woman, Jude (Gyllenhaal) who starts up a relationship with his father Frank (Tom Arnold).
The above synopsis is essentially the whole movie. Very little happens and even less of it is remotely interesting. The film is bad when it tries to be funny and down-right embarrassing when it tries to attempts to be dramatic and moving. What lands it on this list is the decision to scrawl information about the character on the screen when we first meet them as well as at the film’s conclusion.
This move reeks of a filmmaker who either wasn’t confident enough with what he filmed, or someone who had the that pretentious notion from the scriptwriting phase. Either one is unforgivable. While a similarly structured film like Magnolia might be filled with its own brand of indulgence, it is at least original and interesting to watch. The same cannot be said of this piece of dreck.