The Best Movie: Donnie Darko
The Rest: Southland Tales, The Box
Richard Kelly is one of the only directors in history capable of retroactively ruining his first movie just by making more. Nearly everybody in 2001 was on the Donnie Darko bandwagon (me included), even if they didn't quite understand what the hell happened in the movie (me again). The pacing, the characters and the performances made audiences feel like Kelly was a director who knew what kind of story he was telling. Everything about the narrative, even the most convoluted sections, felt purposeful and necessary, like an impenetrable classic novel no one actually gets, but one that includes a bunny suit and a bunch of Tears for Fears songs.
Of course, fans were eager to peel away the layers. They devoted entire blogs and forums to unraveling the movie and analyzing each beat. Everyone was so busy feeling good about themselves for being so smart that they forgot the possibility that the movie might not make any sense.
Getty "Haha, so hold on. I was supposed to be a superhero the whole time? Oh man, I'm so glad you never told me that."
As soon as Richard Kelly released Southland Tales, set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and The Box, set in a slow-moving river of anachronistic bullshit, even his most ardent supporters took a break from ravenous fandom to privately decide if maybe Richard Kelly was an idiot. Both movies are so meandering and pointless, and so full of empty-calorie surprises, that suddenly critics had a big enough sample size to isolate patterns, and sadly, everyone slowly figured out that what Donnie Darko concealed behind mystique and pretension was actually just bad storytelling. The sequel to Donnie Darko only reinforced that fact by drawing attention to plot holes everyone was too forgiving to notice the first time around, and then stretching them wide enough to throw a jet engine through.
Still, there are people who adamantly believe that Kelly's movies are good. They will defend Southland Tales to the death, screaming "It's satire!" because that's a word they heard other people use to redeem things that are unforgivably bad. But the truth is, Richard Kelly is not good at making movies, and we all would have carried on mistaking him for a genius if he just would have stopped after his first film.