A few days ago I happened to see a picture of LBJ on TV. For whatever reason, the image called to mind a dialogue exchange between John (Bruce Greenwood) and Bobby (Stephen Culp) Kennedy in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days (2001). There’s no great significance in this—except that it’s the only thing I clearly remember from the film. I also remembered that I’d reviewed it, been favorably impressed and gave it four stars. Did it deserve those four stars? Re-reading my 2001 review, I suspect it did, but I’d need to see it again to swear to that.
What most struck me, though, was that it’s just one of any number of perfectly fine movies that came and went that simply didn’t have that special spark that made them stick in the mind. With that in mind, I took a quick run through the movie review archives in search of other such titles. Even admitting the quixotic nature of the archive (I know some titles are just plain missing) and its peculiar-to-non-existent mode of alphabetizing, I turned up quite a few movies that fell into this category, or into related ones. Occasionally, I’d see a four, or even five, star title and not recognize it, only to discover that I hadn’t reviewed it. Sometimes this was easy. I knew darned good and well that I never gave Armageddon (1998) four stars or Hardball (2001) five stars.
A great deal of the time when I couldn’t remember a title, I’d discover that it was a documentary. This didn’t surprise me. I admit that I’m not really that keen on documentaries—regardless of their worthiness—and I often find myself reviewing ones that hold little personal appeal for me. I am as against female genital mutilation as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I actually want to see a documentary about it. And let’s be honest, the draw of any documentary is predicated on the viewer being interested in the topic. More to the point, how many of us have watched a documentary (and, no, concert films don’t count) multiple times?
Generally, the films I spotted fell into one of two categories. There were the merely overrated, which is a hindsight thing and not exactly what I was looking for. It’s pretty easy to second guess the validity of an opinion formed on one viewing that allowed minimal time for reflection. And believe me, I am only too aware of such “what was I thinking?” moments as Signs (2002) with its preposterous four stars. I’m equally cognizant of my early attempt at forced objectivity with Cast Away (2000) where I “divined” that audiences would probably enjoy a couple hours of Tom Hanks communing with a volley ball even if it didn’t do much for me personally. (And I couldn’t and can’t deny that it’s well done for what it is.)
After excluding documentaries, there was only one title I had completely forgotten and had to read the review in order to find out what it was. This actually occurred a little while back with the film Focus (2001). Even after being assured by someone that I had indeed seen it, I had to look it up whereupon I learned that I had seen it, I had reviewed it and I even gave it the full five stars. Regardless, I remember almost nothing about the film. Is it a good movie? I suspect so. I don’t think I could have been that far off-base, but it certainly lacked something if I can remember it only dimly. I mean, after all, I remember Dude, Where’s My Car?, the stirring saga of a couple of mouth-breather stoners that I feel assured is a much lesser film than Focus.
The lion’s share of titles came under the heading of “oh, yeah” when I encountered them. I didn’t need to look up Thirteen Days to remember I’d seen it and reviewed it. The same is true of such movies as 15 Minutes (2001), After the Wedding (2006), All Over the Guy (2001), Along Came a Spider (2001), The Anniversary Party (2001), Art School Confidential (2006), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Black Hawk Down (2001), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Hearts in Atlantis (2001), K-PAX (2001), Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002), Spy Game (2001), and The Sum of All Fears (2002). (I must confess I was amused to find that a porn film called The Sum of All Rears lay in the wake of that last.) Even granting that most of the titles listed there are from 2001 and 2002, it’s still instructive of more than the passage of time. (There are some movies I haven’t seen since 1972 that I remember.)
I have nothing against any of those titles—apart from Nicolas Cage’s Chico Marx accent in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I could go through them and sort out their position relative to each other, or note the fact that The Anniversary Party is more interesting as an early example of a movie shot on video, but to what end? (I should note, however, that I gave that one four stars and it was changed to five by the then editor.) The point to all this is simply that these actually are good movies, but good isn’t enough. There’s something lacking.
Looking over those titles, I’m hard-pressed to imagine that a single one of those movies is anybody’s favorite movie—and I can imagine an awful lot of downright weird or even ghastly choices for someone’s all-time favorite. I might be appalled by being told that somebody’s favorite movie is Transformers, but I wouldn’t actually be surprised. The real problem is that it’s impossible for me to believe that any movie cited there could generate sufficient passion to accomplish that level of devotion. Does anyone actually love any of these movies? With the possible exception of Bend It Like Beckham, I doubt it, but I’m willing to proven wrong. In fact, I’d like to be proven wrong. It’s kind of sad to see movies of some merit just sitting there unloved.
But really, look at those titles. What would you think if you went to someone’s house and found those titles on their DVD shelves? My first thought might be “Wal-Mart dump bin,” since there are a lot of us who’ll shell out five bucks for something we might watch some day. (If you wonder why I have Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican  and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula , that’s the explanation. Then again I have lots of odd things because the studios get delusional around awards season and think someone will put Legally Blonde on a Ten Best list. ) Otherwise, I’d have some questions. I wouldn’t think there was something wrong with that person, but I’d be curious as to the motivation for the purchases. They’re sort of the filmic equivalent of beige walls—almost on the way to being the “sofa-sized” paintings of movies. Maybe that’s harsh, since a case could be made for each of these films, but not by me—at least to the point of owning them.