Generally speaking it’s much easier for me to come up with “Best” lists than it is for worst lists. Most of the reason is because I have the freedom to avoid bad films. Since I’m not a professional film critic (and barely an amateur one) I’m not forced to cover movies that I know are going to be train wrecks before I see them (cough, The Emoji Movie, cough). And since I’m also a big nerd who reads a lot of film criticism, I tend to be privy to what movies I should keep on my radar and films that I should avoid. With a lot of good and great movies and a finite amount of time it just doesn’t make sense to waste my time intentionally watching movies I know I’ll hate.
This is doubly true when it comes to movies I actually decide to see at the movie theatre because then it’s not just merely my time being wasted. Going to the movies is not cheap and with the availability of certain review aggregator sites (who aren’t paying me to promote them so find them yourself) it seems doubly foolish to check out a movie your gut (and the rottenness of a certain fruit) tells you is bad. Add to that the natural results of confirmation bias (I spent money on this, therefore it must be good) and you see the potential difficulties of coming up with this list.
But since this is the height of summer, and summer is typically when things like quality of a movie go out the window, I thought it might be fun to dredge up the past and figure out exactly which movies I have seen over the years were my biggest wastes of money. And coming up with a shortlist was surprisingly easy for me. Even with all my seemingly failsafe measures I was shocked by just how many mediocre and dull movies I had forked over good cash for. So in order to sort the horrible wheat from the merely substandard chaff I came up with the following… you guessed it, rules:
- These movies couldn’t be something I retroactively thought was bad. Batman & Robin, Godzilla (1998) and The Phantom Menace are objectively bad movies. But those were also films that I legitimately thought was awesome at the time and only the passage of time helped me realize perhaps they were not the masterpieces I thought they were. That is simply not good enough to make this list – these movies have to be things I knew were bad the moment the credits rolled (if not long before).
- These also have to be movies I can’t have ironically enjoyed either. I laughed at the Mr. Bean movie. The Da Vinci Code was a pretty bad film, but between Tom Hanks horrible hair and the ludicrousness of the plot it was at least fun to hate-watch. I knew at the time these weren’t really good movies. But it’s badness was part of the fun. This list is reserved for things I hated.
- They have to inspire strong emotions in me. Disgust, hatred, disbelief, and self-loathing are all acceptable emotions. Boredom is not.
- And finally, I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating on my first worst list: this is my personal list – I’m not claiming any authority besides my own. Some of these might be your favourites, some might even be religious experiences for you. I’m not going to try to take that away from you. I might argue a little with you but I’m not here to change your mind either. These are all just the movies that rubbed me the wrong way.
Without further ado, onto the hall of shame:
10. GRAND CENTRAL (2013) by Rebecca Zlotowski
I can guarantee that most of you haven’t heard of this movie. That’s because I stumbled upon this movie during the Seattle International Film Festival, in the middle of a hot spring day, amongst a busy slate of other films I was seeing. As far as I can tell, this film never got even a limited release in the States. Now film festivals are usually wonderful things and a are chance to discover new directors, hidden gems, and stuff that the general public hasn’t gotten to see yet. The danger of film festivals however is that sometimes those new directors turn out to be not so fantastic and the gems have good reason to remain hidden.
Usually in my experience film festivals crowds tend to be forgiving ones. We spend a lot of money for the privilege to see rare, unseen, and potentially cutting edge films so we are generally loathe to diss something we are currently seeing (especially when the thought of what other movies we could be seeing instead causes massive FOMO). But Grand Central managed to do exactly that for me. It borrowed from the most superficial of Mallickian influences, with plenty of long pauses, meaningful glances, and still shots of nature to suggest profundity. The story is small in the way most art house films are, but the stakes so minuscule and the characters so ordinary as to ask why exactly this story needed to be told at all. It is the worst kind of art film, the pretentious project from people who have had neither the experience or skills to assume such pretension. Now is this movie so bad that it is amongst the ten worst I have seen in the cinema? Probably not. But it is the highest amount of money I have ever spent on a terrible movie (festival prices) so on that front alone it deserves to be on the list.
9. LES MISERABLES (2012) by Tom Hooper
Sometimes a movie-watching experience is bad simply because the material doesn’t connect or the quality isn’t there. But then there are those times when your night at the movies is ruined because of the sheer disappointment of having a project utterly fail to meet your expectations. And Les Miserables falls into the latter category. Growing up I had the privilege of being able to see the actual play multiple times and it remains a vivid memory for me, as well as a formative experience. For weeks after I would listen repeatedly to the soundtrack, imagining myself as Jean Valjean or my personal favourite, Enjorlas. I did many a reenactment of the plot with my action figures. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with Eponine.
All this to say that I went into this first live-action film of the hit Broadway musical with high expectations. And for maybe the first two minutes, those expectations were met. Then Russell Crowe opened his mouth to sing and everything went downhill from there. For some inane reason, Tom Hooper decided that contrary to every other filmed musical, all the singing would come from live performances and would not be lip synced. Now even with trained broadway singers, this might be a slightly daunting task. But to do that with untrained singers who have very different levels of quality is as great a misstep as I have ever seen. If there is one thing a musical should nail, it should be the music. Couple that with the fact that Hooper fails to overcome the inherent problems that all Broadway musicals seem to have when people try to adapt them to the main screen and you have an altogether disappointing experience.
8. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) by Mel Gibson
Hoo boy, this one is probably going to get me in trouble. You see I grew up evangelical and still am a Christian and when this movie first came out it was a big deal in the Christian world. We were promised accuracy. We were promised a religious experience. The hype was so big that we thought that once this movie comes out, the whole world is going to see it and be saved.
I remember the day my whole youth group packed up and decided to see it together, religious fervour at a fever pitch. I on the other hand have long had a strong distrust of all things Christian when it comes to movies (I’ll explain in a longer post some other time) so I was more than a little apprehensive going in. But peer pressure being what it is, I went anyway and I will admit to being a little excited as the lights went down. And the movie was okay.
Well let me back up, the parts of the movie that weren’t horrifically violent were okay. It has always been ironic to me that the same group of people who constantly decry the horrible violence of TV and movies and video games did not bat an eye to perhaps the most sadistic depiction of violence ever put on screen. Now I know that there are some who think that it is necessary to show the violence to understand your faith but I respectfully disagree. If you let me put on my seminary hat for just a brief moment, my problem with this movie on a theological level is that nowhere in the Bible does it say that the reason salvation is effective is because of the degree of violence by which Jesus suffered and died. It is not a coincidence to me that none of the Gospels spent much time on the details of his death (theology hat off now). So in my view, while Gibson’s piety is commendable it is still misguided sadism.
7. ELYSIUM (2013) by Neill Blomkamp
As bizarre as it seems now, there used to be a time when Neill Blomkamp was being as the next great visionary director, fit to fill the shoes of Steven Spielberg or at least Peter Jackson. His first feature District 9 was rightly being heralded as an impressive debut, a film made with creativity and vision and a worthy addition to the sci-fi canon. And since the movie was made on a modest budget, there was great hope with what he could do with a bigger blockbuster size budget. Sure, there were a couple of iffy racial problems in District 9 with most of the villains being stereotypical gangster Africans, but the feeling was that that problem would sort itself out with his next feature.
Well that much anticipated follow-up was this turd of a movie. Rather than course correcting on the racial problems of District 9, Blomkamp stunningly doubles down by making his shantytown hero the white saviour Matt Damon, probably the least diverse choice he could’ve made and yet another feather in Blomkamp’s feather of tone-deafness. But on top of that, all the innovative promise in District 9 falls to the wayside as instead we get a generic “fight the powers” storyline accentuated by run-of-the-mill generic action sequences with even more generic looking special effects with a cast of generic action movie characters filling out the movie.. It’s a classic case of a bigger budget helping to accentuate the flaws of a director while smoothing out all their uniqueness.
6. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014) by Marc Webb
In my ability to avoid paying good money to watch crap, there is one genre that has successfully resisted and circumvented my usual filters and that is the superhero genre. The day I saw the original X-Men movie way back in 2000 remains one of the greatest cinema-watching experiences I’ve had because I got to see my comic-book heroes come to life and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched almost all the comic-book movies out there and before my first child came along, I caught most of them in their theatrical run. As a result I’ve seen some clunkers along the way.
But the reason this particular disaster makes it onto the list is because I had already been burned by Spider-Man before. I remember watching Spider-Man 3 (emo-Spidey) on my first real date with my now-wife at a midnight showing on opening night, and that movie just was not very good. So in a classic case of “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me” situation, I decided to double dip and check out another Spider-Man movie that I knew going in was probably not going to be very good. And it was just simply stunning how many of the same freaking mistakes the movie made from the last disastrous outing. Overstuffed plot line? Check. Too many underdeveloped villains? Check. Bad caricature of a stereotype (nerds)? Check. Rushing helter-skelter past iconic comic-book arcs? Check. But on top of all that they have the audacity to put out this incoherent mess while trying to make it a launching point to numerous sequels? That sin is precisely why this film makes it on the list.
5. CLOUD ATLAS (2012) by Lana and Lilly Wachowski
There is nothing like trying to tackle a well-beloved novel that many people have called “unfilmable” to pique people’s interest. And there is nothing like choosing to utilize yellowface as your elegant solution to the unfilmability of the novel to set yourself up for a horrific disaster. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m generally speaking not a Wachowski basher. I will argue vehemently that The Matrix Revolutions is not just a good conclusion to the movie trilogy but is this close to being great. I will even throw down and defend Speed Racer as the work “mad geniuses”. But Cloud Atlas is just such an unfathomable mess combining hubris with hackneyed pop-philosophy that I just can’t even bring myself to half-heartedly defend it.
Besides the aforementioned yellowface making every scene in Neo-Seoul cringeworthy, chief among the films worst offences is the saccharine sentimentality that seems to drive the whole thing. It makes some comment about art and love, but only in the most Hallmark greeting card sort of way. It is profound only in the most obvious ways and when it is not it is nonsensically naive. This film is nothing more than the sci-fi version of Crash (2004), which was by far the worst picture ever to win Best Picture. And that is more than enough to let you know my feelings about this tripe.
4. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010) by Tim Burton
Now if you’ve been following my blog, you may have picked up that I am a huge Disney fan. I am game to watch just about anything Disney with you anytime you want, whether it’s the classic animated films, cartoon shorts, the old Walt Disney television specials, or even anything from the classic Disney afternoon block. But there is one recent Disney movie trend that I cannot get my heart around and it is the live action remakes of the classic animated films. In that respect perhaps Alice in Wonderland is going to bear the unnecessary brunt of all my ire at that trend mostly because it is the first of those live action remakes and also because it is the only one I bothered to pony up money for a cinema ticket.
My reason for not liking these live action remakes is because they are just the reincarnation of an old Disney money-grabbing policy. Way back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even all the way into the 90s it used to be Disney’s policy to re-release some of the older animated films theatrically every decade or so. Apart from the chance to make a little bit extra dough of their IP, the company did it so that a new generation of children would get to witness these films for the first time. But with the advent of VHS and then DVDs and now Blu-Rays the market for those re-releases has shrunk since we can just view them from home. And so the 21st century incarnation of that practice is shamefacedly, the re-release of these movies in live action form as a way to keep the money rolling in. Walt would be so proud. And as I have written about here, the problem is that none of the individual films have justified why they are necessary beyond that financial standpoint. They are either “dark” retellings (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent) that cheapen the original product or such faithful retreads (Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast) that they make you wonder why they needed to be made in the first place. At best with The Jungle Book, they are merely good but still barely hold a candle to the original. And with Alice in Wonderland in particular, I think my hatred for this movie stems from the fact that this is the precise moment in Johnny Depp’s career that I officially got tired of his schtick.
3. FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007) by Tim Story
While this was not intentional as I was putting this list together, I’ve realized there’s a common theme amongst the bottom three movies on this list. I watched all of these when I was home on vacation in Malaysia during a school break and the combination of boredom, the stifling heat and humidity, the lure of air-conditioned bliss, a smaller range of movie choices, and the ridiculously favourable exchange rate conspired to lower my standards when picking a movie to watch. In this particular case that was further exacerbated by my aforementioned particular weakness when it comes to superhero movies (see The Amazing Spider-Man 2)
While this movie fails the memorability test as I can barely recount any of the details it makes this list for one reason only: Going in I was feeling at best lukewarm about seeing this because I had seen the first Fantastic Four and not been thrilled by it. But leaving it I remember just being in disbelief because somehow they made it worse in every way. Very rarely do I feel like I wasted my time at the cinema and not remember exactly why yet have that feeling of wasted-ness linger for years. On the positive side however, I did manage to learn a lesson with this film. As a result of this stinker I have still not come anywhere close to seeing Josh Trank’s disaster 2015 reboot of the Fantastic Four yet. So look, I am slowly growing as a human being. Go me.
2. TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011) by Michael Bay
And at long last, the infamous Michael Bay and his grand tribute to ridiculous explosions, female objectification, nonsensical editing, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the Saturday-morning cartoon property he’s working with makes his grand appearance on the list. Admittedly I could’ve put any of the fist three Transformers movies that Bay somehow suckered me into parting money to see because they are all such shockingly similar cacophonous and migraine-inducing films. As a fun thought exercise, pick any Transformers movie and try to explain to me the plot, or at the very least what exactly is happening in any of the battle sequences. Although not alone in this problem, Bay has seemingly perfected the art of eschewing mere conventional things like plot and character development for the lure of as much explosions and collateral damage as possible.
But there are many reasons why the malodorous third movie and not the others makes it onto the list. First is the obscene length time of this movie which is bad enough but was made worse by the fact I was wearing shorts and the theatre was freezing. There is nothing like battling hypothermia to make a horrible movie seem worse. But more importantly, it was in this movie where Michael Bay officially jumps the shark by turning Optimus Prime, one of the noblest and most honourable role models a kid could ever wish for, into a murderous psychopaths who shoots his enemies in the back while begging for mercy. It’s just hard to fathom how Bay thought someone who died honourably like this would ever resort to mercilessness like this. Toss into that Bay’s usual excesses and the whole thing just becomes a torturous slog.
1. CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN 2 (2005) by Adam Shankman
Here you have it, my source of shame. I have in fact, paid money to see Cheaper By The Dozen 2. I’ve never even SEEN the first one. I cannot tell you what possessed me to go watch this movie. My only defense was I had gotten my wisdom teeth removed earlier that week. Was I in so much pain that my judgment was severely impaired? Was I so bored that I was willing to watch anything? Was a movie theatre opening up and I wanted to check it out? Was the appearance of my childhood crush Hillary Duff enough to make me give this a shot? The sad horrible truth is that I don’t know, and now it is in on public record that I once willingly and without anyone twisting my arm sat down to watch this turd. It is the kind of rock bottom that makes you realize that maybe you need to make serious changes in your life. I hated myself then for subjecting myself to this horrible tripe. And though the self-loathing has died down a little in the intervening years, the slight shame still remains.
It should be plainly obvious that I’m NOT recommending any of these. But I would be interested to hear what’s the worst movie you’ve seen in theatres. Let me know!