There’s a pretty wide gulf separating World’s Greatest Dad from Bobcat Goldthwait’s first forays in feature filmmaking, 1991’s Shakes the Clown and 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie. It’s plain to see that each comes from the same source – they’re dark as hell and they revel in squirming discomfort – but in the three year period leading to production of his black comedy opus, he grew by leagues as a storyteller, honing his craft to a very refined point without sacrificing his bawdy touches. World’s Greatest Dad continues the exploration of honesty that frequently arises in Bobcat’s work (though sometimes in quieter ways than others), but it also asks us to pity the contemptible. Should we sympathize with high school teacher Lance Clayton, who leverages his terrible teenage son’s accidental death in pursuit of the literary recognition he craves? Should we denounce him as his friends and colleagues do when he’s exposed as a fraud? The film zeros in on Lance’s helplessness both to his kid’s inherent, inexplicable rottenness and to his own selfish desires as a human being, and Goldthwait miraculously manages to find catharsis somewhere in between its dueling axes of bad behavior.
After the awesome revelation of World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America looked like an embarrassment of riches from afar; on paper the idea of Goldthwait skewering the gross fixations of American pop culture sounds tantalizing. In practice, the satire works much less effectively. There’s more advancement of technique here – Goldthwait is shockingly good filmmaker – but God Bless America answers reckless indulgence and wanton cruelty with reckless indulgence and wanton cruelty. We all love to see Jon Stewart fire metaphorical shots at Sean Hannity on The Daily Show. Watching the great Joel Murray’s sadsack insurance salesman fire actual shots at a Hannity surrogate is, against all logic, sort of uncomfortable. Look, Goldthwait is probably right on the money – this country would be a much better place without American Idol, asshole pundits, and “reality” TV polluting our brains. But the film takes such vicious glee in filling the people who drive these institutions with lead that it winds up being the harsher alternative. Calling this Goldthwait’s “worst” film is complimentary to his filmography, because as low points go, it’s fairly surface level. But if you want to explore Goldthwait’s career on film, start elsewhere. — Andy Crump
There’s a kind of virtuosity in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. that seems to exist nowhere else in cinema. Keaton, stoned face as always, leaps into the movie screen. His surroundings change with rapidity and without reason, and while he is unable to necessarily keep his balance, it’s that audience that he keeps on their toes. From a zoo to the ocean to the snow, Keaton’s dream is like a gentle warning: the movies are magic, but you’re better off watching from afar. There remains, nonetheless, an inexplicable, universal desire to be in the movies. Keaton gets to be a detective, his desires come to fruition, and his perfectly executed nimbleness is, in this dream, elegantly executed. He places the protagonist in a fantastical situation, but unlike many films where the world bends to the character’s whim, he must bend to that world’s.
It’s definitely no consensus to call The General his worst film, but while the sheer scale of several of the stunts are incomparable, what is missing in the film is heart, thrill, and excitement. Keaton’s comedy proves that the athleticism of his movements were an externalization of internal feelings: anxiety, elation, frustration, etc. Yet, it seems to be sidestepped in much of The General for a D.W. Griffiths-esque melodramatic plotline. Even in many of his short films, that externalization is present in every fall, trip, summersault, and blunder. The General, in comparison, concentrates on spectacle and little on the emotional context of that spectacle. In the film, Buster Keaton is a guy with a big train set, but we never get any insight as to why it matters when it crashes. — Kyle Turner
Helmed by a heavyweight and boasting an elite cast, historical significance and cultural gravitas, The Monuments Men on paper met at least basic criteria for critical and commercial success. But George Clooney’s stab at depicting this little-known story of World War II heroes, based on the men who both risked and lost their lives to reclaim priceless pieces of art stolen by the Nazis, hardly left a knick. Clooney, a devoted Renaissance man, banked that audiences’ investment in preserving Da Vinci paintings and Michelangelo sculptures would translate to equal—and unconditional—investment in the screen material. The judgment call resulted in a didactic affront to honest storytelling, from the minute Frank Stokes (Clooney) first pitches LBJ on his passion project. The overuse of fades and dissolves between shots as a last-ditch effort to tease out an emotional response from the viewer feels glib and downright offensive. The lovable ragtag underdogs enlisted for the mission (Bill Murray, John Goodman)—who by some miracle are void of individual character—aren’t convincing in their roles as protectors of fine art nor in their attempts to get anyone to give a shit. The only clue as to their supposed interest in the first place is Clooney’s patronizing voiceover insisting so. One imagines them tooling around the Austrian border in a golf cart.
The Monuments Men is like a garbage game of haughty inside baseball of which you’re happy to sit out.
David Strathairn as CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow is the backbone of Good Night, and Good Luck, a true-blue indoctrination of red paranoia and media censorship born from unbridled McCarthy politics. Clooney, the son of a newsman, avoids the pitfalls of retroactive clairvoyance and hindsight bias, and instead of turning the film into a platform for finger-wagging screed a la The Newsroom, he opts for turning attention towards his hero. Good Night is an appreciation of Murrow, a rare breed of journalist dedicated to closing the gap between the informed and the ignorant public, even and often at his personal expense. In the vein of Murrow’s no-nonsense code, Clooney keeps the battle inside the newsroom and eschews extracurricular fluff, shooting in black and white for added aesthetic objectivity. It’s a class act, and Clooney’s most accomplished directing to date. — Melissa Weller
Clint Eastwood made his name, and came to fame, by portraying masculinity onscreen, but his best directorial work often criticizes, ponders, or tries to unravel the myth of the American male. His greatest feats as a director are often the films where his lens becomes empathetic to people struggling, surviving, or dealing with the difficulties of their own situations. It’s there that his camera becomes American in a way that conjures John Ford, and his films represent something human, moral, and altogether warm instead of the kind of violent man his acting career made him out to be.
Unforgiven’s brilliance comes from how it balances those two things and ponders the question of Eastwood’s place as a violent hero of the West, and what kind of effect that has on a man. Unforgiven is Eastwood’s best since it works as both a self-critique of Eastwood’s more violent western pictures (High Plains Drifter, Dollars Trilogy), and an examination of a man who is living with the sins of killing. Bill Munny (Eastwood) is haunted by his past, and in the film’s most striking moment Eastwood delivers the most telling line of his entire career when Bill Munny says “Killing’s a hell of a thing. You take everything a man’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.” This informs his entire career as an actor and director. The body count he piled up as Josey Wales, Harry Callahan, The Man with No Name, and many others seems weighted in Eastwood’s acting. Munny is a tired man, and he carries violence and pain with him. His voice is gruff and old, but he doesn’t sugarcoat the past problems that his wife seemingly solved. However, Unforgiven isn’t just a commentary on violence; it becomes something more difficult to pin down in its final moments, as it evolves into a more typical western. When Munny hears that Daggett (Gene Hackman) has killed his best friend Ned (Morgan Freeman) Bill transforms into an Eastwood of the past, and revels in taking revenge. But is his vengeance justified? When this movie turns into a picture of a good man versus an evil man, Eastwood challenges the notions of each man’s actions to the point where there isn’t an easy answer to the question of justice. On its own, the denouement is representative of the Western stylings Eastwood made his name on. But, coupled with the first two thirds of the picture, it clangs against a dissonant anti-violent treatise that makes the ending more of a challenge than a moment of catharsis for a fallen friend. And its much to the masterpiece’s benefit.
On the flipside, The Rookie is as inessential as a film can be in Eastwood’s ouevre as either an actor or a director. It’s a buddy-cop picture that was released in an overstuffed market, and is only a few years removed from Eastwood’s greatest directorial effort in the police subgenre—the vastly undervalued Sudden Impact—and only a year and a half after the complete misfire, The Dead Pool. The conservative notion of Clint Eastwood’s public politics is intrinsically connected to his filmography. His persona as a masculine figure is inescapable to his work as well, but often, this isn’t the true Eastwood. His films are more frequently linked with common men and women who achieve extraordinary things (Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby). His lens is one of connection, but sometimes he loses that in favor of a grander perception of himself. The Rookie‘s problems are specifically linked to Eastwood having made a film for the people who only know that version of Clint. Here, he’s a wisecracking, “shoot first, ask questions later” character, but The Rookie doesn’t even have the decency to balance that with anything resembling ideas. This is an easy picture for Eastwood to make, and his core audience eats this sort of thing up, but it’s the hollowest picture in an otherwise rich director’s body of work. — Willow Maclay
Pulling the best and worst from a filmography of three flicks is an interesting proposition given that Ben Affleck, a mainstay in front of the camera since the 90s, is so new to the directorial world. Still, he’s given moviegoers reasons to both groan and cheer, with the emphasis on the latter. Affleck’s 2010 feature, The Town, fits into the ever-growing category of Boston-set crime dramas, starring himself alongside Jeremy Renner in a band of homegrown bank robbers at a pivotal point in their thieving careers. Credit goes to Affleck, who also co-wrote the film with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, for intimately engaging with characters who are written to be reserved and gruff and having this rough tenderness reflect the neighborhood (Charlestown) the film sets out to discover. The Town opens with a bank heist that is efficiently shot and palpably rendered, flawlessly energized with a sense of urgency and risk.
Affleck came away mostly scot-free for committing the cardinal sin of casting himself in The Town (something he did not do in his debut, Gone Baby Gone), but couldn’t resist casting himself as the weakest part of his third feature, 2012’s Argo. His portrayal of the main character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, was the most problematic part of the film, both in terms of the desperate character building which had little relevance to the primary storyline, as well as Affleck’s muted on-screen persona dragging down portions of the film. Still, to call Argo “the worst” on pretty much any level feels a bit awkward–Affleck’s most recent film bagged a trio of Academy Awards, with many pointing to Affleck’s exclusion from a Best Director nomination to be the snub of all snubs. Despite the character problems, Affleck has an innate ability to execute action sequences, carrying tension across locations and over extended periods of time—a skill put to perhaps strained use during the final third of Argo as the Embassy workers flee Iran around the time of the Iranian Revolution. Although he’s known as an actor first, many moviegoers might feel strange to admit they are probably more eager for Affleck’s next turn behind the camera than as an actor. — Ryan J. Gimarc