I recently got into a discussion online where I made the case that reducing talking about movies to “good or bad” (or similar simplified judgments like a numerical rating) can be detrimental. It’s useful shorthand to convey your general feelings towards a film, but there is always nuances and various aspects that can get lost in this simplification process. An example I used was The Exorcist. I gave that film a 3/5 score, which is basically the passing grade on my review scale. It means that I found the film to be okay and worthy of my time. And while that’s all well and good, it doesn’t tell you any details or reasonings. It doesn’t say anything about how I found the special effects to not have held up very well, to the point where some scenes that were probably scary in 1973 felt more inadvertantly comedic to me when I first saw it in 2010. Nor does it say anything about how good I felt the performances of Linda Blair and Max von Sydow were, or anything else. But now you have some reasoning and detail to my opinions on the film. 3/5 doesn’t provide that. 3/5 is just a number, and a number isn’t much more than a number.
1/5 and 2/5 are also merely numbers. As scores on my scale, they fall below my passing grade. If I give a film these scores, it means I didn’t like them overall. But again, the whole truth isn’t revealed. There are films I’ve given these scores that I can still appreciate for different reasons. Maybe the premise of the story felt fresh and unique. Maybe it tried to do something different that hasn’t been done much before. Maybe it managed to do a lot with a limited budget. Maybe there was one or two aspects of the production I was really impressed with. Sure, these movies didn’t fully succeed with their intended goals and I did end up disliking them (or at least found them to be lackluster) overall, but good ambitions can be worthy of praise alone. There is something to admire about a film that tries and fails, in some ways moreso than a film that plays things safe and turns out merely okay. So as paradoxical as this may sound, there are some films I’ve given 2/5 that I’m happier were made than some films I’ve given 3/5. Even if I didn’t like them as much.
I use the term “noble failures” here to describe these films. Failure might seem too strong a word in some of these cases, but they did fail. They failed to make the passing grade on my scale. And as my scale is highly subjective, so is the use of the word failure here. A noble failure can still have made back its budget and more at the box office, or received critical acclaim, or been a good movie in other people’s books. I’m not talking absolute failures here.
So what are some films I would classify as noble failures?
Well, Dogtooth is one. I really didn’t like this film, chiefly because it didn’t say anything. I’ve heard it described as a political allegory, but that didn’t work for me. What’s the message here? That people who have always lived in alien oppresive conditions might turn violent and want to escape? This isn’t a revelation. The movie is peppered with shocking moments of violence and sex, and it’s all for naught. That said, if taken at face value, there are still some scenes that are vaguely funny. And it’s a polarizing film for sure, so others have obviously seen something in the film that I haven’t. I might have disliked it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people so they can form their own opinions on it. It is at least a unique film.
Richard Kelly‘s Southland Tales is nothing if not ambitious. Every time I happen upon discussions about this film, I’m reminded of individual scenes that were actually quite inspired and funny (the commercial with the cars copulating, for instance). And there is certainly plenty of things to laugh about in the trainwreck sense, such as The Rock‘s constantly nervous steepling fingers, Seann William Scott‘s nonsensical babbling about how pimps don’t commit suicide, and the random musical number. But the film overall is just a huge mess, with a plot that’s impossible to make any sense of and a bloated running time of 140-ish minutes. I enjoyed both of Kelly’s other films (Donnie Darko and The Box), but with Southland Tales his imagination could have used some reigning in. This is a case of where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
What’s the best ever use of an animal in a movie? For my money, it might well be the dog in the 1975 postapocalypse film A Boy and His Dog. This dog is awesome, conversing with his owner in voiceover and expressing so much character through body language and such. It’s really remarkable. Sure, the film as a whole is weird and awkward, but man, that dog! Worth seeing for him alone? Quite possibly.
Many people love Rian Johnson‘s sly Brick, a film noir with high school kids. I found it rather boring in the way it plays out, but the concept is a novel one, there are some teriffic lines of dialogue scattered throghout and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead finds exactly the right tone, hovering just a tad above the material. I’m glad I’ve seen this film, even if I kept glancing at the clock throught my watching of it.
Another film beloved by plenty is Children of Men. I found this one needlessly cold, keeping the characters and story at arms-length that made it hard for me to care about what was going on. But it sure is beautifully shot in all its dystopian grayness, with wonderful cinematography and some amazing uninterrupted takes. People who appreciate these aspects more than me should definitely see the film if they haven’t already.
Low-budget horror film My Little Eye from 2002 is one that could just as easily have gone in my post on films I’d forgotten, as the only thing I remember about it is that I really wanted to like it but couldn’t. In a sea of cheap shoddy horror flicks, this one at least tried to provide some scares, tension and an intriguing mystery, featuring a plot with a bunch of teens taking part in a Big Brother-style reality show. The film didn’t work, but the effort was there. Also notable for featuring an early pre-fame appearance by Bradley Cooper.
What else? Darren Aronofsky‘s debut Pi, which has similar atmosphere to his later films but none of the emotional investment. Rubber, the psychokinetic tire movie that toys with meta elements to limited success. The Tracey Fragments, an Ellen Page movie which uses a unique, if tiresome, shot-in-shot collage style to convey the fragmented mind of a teenage girl. And many other films.
As already stated, I didn’t like any of these movies, and yet I think they deserve better than to simply be labelled “bad” and swept under the carpet. They all bring something to the table and try to be good. Compare this to a film like Captain America: The First Avenger, that is so absolutely stubbornly determined to be merely “okay” that it doesn’t dare aspire to anything. I liked Captain America and was reasonably entertained by it, but I really would have been just as happy having never seen it. These other films listed here, though? I’m glad I saw them all. Even if they’re not very good.