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Most Disappointing Movies of 2008

Jürgen lists the worst movie disappointments of 2008


...a.k.a. all of our most despised reviews in one easy-to-flame package!

I kid, but only sort of. Many of the movies that disappointed me most in 2008 were grossly over-hyped, flagrantly overpraised -- and zealously defended by people with wide-ranging vocabularies. The hate mail I received this year was generally more entertaining than the movies it concerned, but honestly: I'd always rather enjoy a film than not. If you liked or even loved anything on this list, consider yourself lucky. Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures. And yet: if you haven't seen these films yet, may I suggest you try something else instead?

1. Synecdoche, New York

Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is this year's movie to beat in terms of bloated, overarching ambition and joyless, suffocating self-seriousness. If you don't like it, you just don't understand! I found out the hard way that it's also a terrible cocktail party topic, guaranteed to divide and infuriate even the most convivial gathering. Avoid at all costs.

2. Burn After Reading

Say what you will about Synecdoche, at least Kaufman means it. The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, love to play coy. This throwaway flick is billed as "spy comedy," but if you dare ask what's funny about it, you may realize that you're the butt of the joke. The stellar cast (George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, and Brad Pitt) is as delicious as the story is cynical and pointless. As J.K. Simmons helpfully sums up at the end of the film: "What did we learn? Not to do this again." Indeed.

3. The Dark Knight

I got sheaves of hate mail for my dismissive review of this fanboy favorite, but maybe now that the hype has died down, a few more people may agree that this turgid Batman flick never was the masterpiece it was made out to be.

4. Vicky Christina Barcelona

Oh Woody. I had promised myself a while ago never to see another of your films, but the sunny appeal of Barcelona and the promise of a Penelope/Scarlett/Javier threesome lured me back -- to my huge disappointment. On-the-nose narration, a sloppily told story, and the kitschy tourist's eye view of Spain make this a bona fide embarrassment. And the threesome barely generated any heat, either.

5. Slumdog Millionaire

A shamelessly calculated feel-good movie about abject poverty, child abuse, rape, and murder -- but it's all okay because everybody winds up rich and dancing to a Bollywood groove! Danny Boyle's crowd pleaser relies on his usual slick editing, winning musical choices, broad characters, and divine intervention to tell a story that completely falls apart by the light of day.

6. Ballast

Lance Hammer's minimalist Mississippi Delta drama garnered much praise at Sundance and just won six Indie Spirit nominations, but the bare-bones story of poverty, drug abuse, and uncommunicative characters left me underwhelmed. The affected, Dardenne Brothers lite filmmaking would like to pass as high art, but the insights elude it.

7. Elite Squad

Jose Padilha's Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), a poorly told thriller from the favelas of Rio, asks the audience to sympathize with fascist thugs who torture suspects, beat up protesters, and shotgun people in the face. That the film won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale was my first cinematic disappointment of the year.

8. W.

I still wish I'd stayed home and watched the third Obama-McCain debate instead of seeing Oliver Stone's latest presidential drama, which felt completely irrelevant by comparison -- and any other yardstick you might apply to this tepid biopic. Too cartoonish and simplistic to be insightful, too toothless as a satire, and much too soft on George W. Bush's catastrophic presidency, W. makes you long for the no-holds-barred Oliver Stone of JFK and Natural born Killers.

9. Wall-E

Much better than any other movie on this list, I found Wall-E to be a let-down of astronomic proportions nonetheless. Built up as instant classic (the cover of Film Comment, no less!), I was awfully disappointed to find that after an endearing and nearly wordless first act, the film quickly flattened out into predictably schematic kid's fare. (Yes, I do remember The Brave Little Toaster.) I realize this is another unpopular opinion, but for my money, the much maligned Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered much more exciting entertainment and a fresher visual style.

10. Christmas on Mars

The Flaming Lips' home-brewed sci-fi freakout was seven years in the making, but for a band that thrives on sensory overload, I found the film inexplicably downbeat and barren. It was as if the Lips had decided to ignore everything they do best -- and yet, Christmas on Mars went on to highly successful underground screenings all over the country.
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