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The Entrapment List

What do critics talk about at awards meetings when they're waiting for their ballots to be counted? At the National Society of Film Critics gathering at Sardi's today, the discussion at my corner of the table drifted, understandably enough, to feelings of entrapment. In part it was the voting, which went on and on to no especially good end.

The National Society is supposed to be “outside the box,” but this year we were in the same hurt locker as everyone else. Apart from a win for Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker and a tie between the wonderful Paul Schneider of Bright Star and Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds, it was the standard roster: Bigelow, Coens for screenplay, Summer Hours, Yolande Moreau, Mo'Nique. Except for Mo'Nique I'm okay with the above, but why not Colin Firth for a change? Or the guy who played Sy Abelman? (To shake things up, I debated dumping water on the head of the 'tard who voted for Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones.) Anyway, to pass the hours, I started a list of the year’s most excruciating films, the ones that weren’t just bad but oxygen-depleting, dementia-inducing. With thanks to James Verniere, Sam Adams, and Scott Foundas, here’s what I came up with:

The Entrapment List:

1. Nine. The lyrics add an extra element of pain.
2. The Limits of Control. Non-action as existential manifesto.
3. Police, Adjective. Non-action as political manifesto.*
4. The Lovely Bones. Getting murdered young as New Age manifesto.
5. It’s Complicated. Affluence porn.
6. Transformers 2. “Make it stop!”
7. Antichrist. Marginally more fun when the genital mutilations begin.
8. New York, I Love You. You’ll want to move.
9. Big Fan. The King of Comedy with bigger losers.
10. Nine. Too awful to name just once.

*A Cruel Practical Joke: Tell a friend who likes action movies that you’ll meet him at Police, Adjective. “It’s a cop movie! The Times says it’s very entertaining!” Then call him at the theater and say, “Oh, man, I’m puking blood. I think I have swine flu. You should see it without me. A.O. Scott says it’s really cool!” Then move away.

Before my meeting today I went to the Tim Burton exhibit at MoMA, which was okay but confusingly laid out and not worth putting up with the crowds — especially given the museum’s ineptitude vis-à-vis coat-checking, ticketing, and all the other things you’d expect a supposedly world-class institution to know how to handle. But it was fascinating to see Burton’s sketches and videos over the years, especially from the early to mid-eighties. Although they owe much to Dr. Seuss, Searle, Gorey, and Addams, they have a distinctive Burton-esque droopiness, a melancholy obsession with depicting himself (or his alter egos) as depressive freaks.

In light of his early inventiveness, it’s astonishing to look back on the horrible reviews his first films got. A colleague actually told me my praise of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure would “end my career,” while Gene Siskel named it one of the worst movies of the year. Siskel and Ebert panned the convulsively funny (and hugely influential) Beetle Juice, while Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin at the Times both felt compelled to weigh in with their displeasure. The prunish Canby — who fell all over himself that summer raving Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, a comic-book movie in rigor mortis — complained of Batman that “the wit was all pictorial.” (!!!!) You look at the MoMA show and wonder what these people were seeing.

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