This is the part of the job I just hate…
There are two schools of thought re: the compiling of a year’s "worst" movies: either you lambaste the ten most unspeakable atrocities, or you pick over the most profound disappointments. Generally, I’m sticking with the former (if only because it requires less thought), but before we review my most excruciating days and nights at the movies (without Molly Dodd), let’s start with a film that blew its potential greatness on one of the year’s worst third act twists.
10. Michael Clayton (Jeremy’s Review)
Why it’s Here: Though clearly a much better film than any of the atrocities listed below, Michael Clayton deserves its share of scorn for one of the worst third act cheats since a half-devoured Simon MacCorkindale saved the day in Jaws 3-D.
See This Film Instead: Network or The Verdict
How to Make It Work: Give us sufficient reason to believe that Clayton has enough pull with local law enforcement to (spoiler in Inviso-text:) fake his death.
Comments: Tony Gilroy’s admirable attempt to blend the scabrous satire of Network with the legal/corporate thrillers of the 1980s is exceedingly well-performed and, for most of its running time, absorbing enough to hold our attention. But Gilroy errs down the stretch by straining for narrative tidiness; and there’s just too much mess and moral ambiguity for his "Gotcha!" ending to work. It’s a betrayal of the audience’s intellect, a cheap finale that belongs in a Rob Reiner movie, not a Chayefsky/Lumet hybrid.
9. Mr. Brooks (Devin’s Review)
Why It’s Here: Kevin Costner plays a devoted father and husband who’s a successful businessman by day, and a serial killer by night. The premise isn’t the problem; it’s that the writers (Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon) seem convinced that they’ve concocted the most original spin on the serial killer genre since The Stepfather.
See This Film Instead: The Stepfather
How to Make It Work: Playing it as dark comedy wouldn’t make Mr. Brooks any more original, but it might’ve freed up Costner to use his natural, movie star charisma.
Comments: Technically, Mr. Brooks is a slick thriller, but it’s just too satisfied with the "originality" of its conceit to draw the audience in. As a result, we’re left gazing from the outside at a cleanly constructed film that’s convinced it’s a hell of a lot clever than it really is. That gets annoying real quick – even more so than Dane Cook, who’s actually well-utilized as a sleazy photographer who blackmails Mr. Brooks into taking him on as a protege. When more filmmakers realize that Cook is eminently easy to root against, he’ll have a real career.
Why It’s Here: I paid to see War hoping for this year’s Crank. I got this year’s kick in the cock instead.
See This Film Instead: The Lion in Winter. And, of course, Crank.
How to Make It Work: Instead of casting Jason Statham and Jet Li as, respctively, the dueling FBI agent and assassin, switch them out with Saul Rubinek and Luis Guzman (both of whom showed up far too briefly in this not-brief-enough C-list action showdown).
Comments: In retrospect, I burdened War with unfair expectations; very few filmmakers are brazen and/or talented enough to approach the dizzyingly depraved heights of Crank. But if you’re going to make an unapologetically dumb action flick with Jason Statham and Jet Li, the least you can do is give us a few passable Cory Yuen fight sequences and a hot female lead who ain’t afraid to do most of her acting in the altogether. War, however, comes up well short on both counts: the hand-to-hand combat is forgettable (and incoherently shot), while the "female lead" is Devon Aoki. No thanks.
7. Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Jeremy’s Review)
Why It’s Here: An uncalled-for sequel to a madly overrated film, Shekhar Kapur’s continuation of the Elizabeth I saga couldn’t even deliver as a mildly entertaining costume drama – which is quite the dubious achievement when the bulk of your film has Cate Blanchett playing off of Clive Owen.
See This Film Instead: Elizabeth R
How to Make It Work: Though Kapur slathers on the CG sound-and-fury, he never successfully convinces the audience that this (most tumultuous) segment of Elizabeth’s life is in dire need of yet another retelling. Kapur seems most interested in the speculative, unrequited romance between the Queen and Sir Walter Raleigh, but he’s also determined to shoehorn in Mary Queen of Scots, which blurs the film’s already scattered focus.
Comments: If the sole purpose of mounting Elizabeth: The Golden Age was to avenge Blanchett’s Best Actress slight for the first film, then it is an unmitigated disaster. Though she’s perfectly fine in the film, anything truly exceptional about performance is lost in all of Kapur’s sixth-rate Ridley Scott bluster. Blanchett was a surprise in 1998; now, she’s a known and beloved quantity. And we don’t like seeing her wasted on pointless Oscar bait like this.
6. Shrek the Third (Jeremy’s Review)
Why It’s Here: The Dreamworks Animation flagship franchise reaches a depressing nadir with this talky (yes, "talky), uninspired cash grab.
See This Film Instead: Ratatouille
How to Make It Work: It’s too late to go back to the William Steig children’s book for a reinvention (way too much money has been made by this point), so maybe it’s time to bring in a completely new group of writers with no prior connection to the other two installments. I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg is looking at that $321 million domestic gross and thinking the same thing.
Comments: The first film was hailed for its barbed satirizing of all things Disney (prompted by Michael Eisner’s slighting of his former number two, Katzenberg), but, as I said in my review, there’s something kinda depressing in a family "classic" being inspired by two rich white guys spatting with one another. Whether the first film qualifies as a "classic" in the first place is still a subject of some debate, though the years, and the sequels, have not been kind to its critical reputation. But box office matters more than legacy, so expect more… and worse.
5. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Jeremy’s Review)
Why It’s Here: Some of my respected colleagues are charmed by this series’ lean-and-junky aesthetic. As the antithesis of the deathly serious superhero epics we’ve been bludgeoned with over the last decade, I get it. But the movies are just too ineptly made to win me over.
See This Film Instead: Sky High
How to Make It Work: Ditch director Tim Story for someone who can find the heart in all of the obligatory mayhem (like maybe Sky High helmer, Mike Mitchell).
Comments: I gave Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer every benefit of the doubt going in, and even went to a midnight showing to see it with the most enthusiastic audience possible. This did nothing to alleviate my misery, which set in early and only worsened as I realized no one involved in the development of this non-movie gave a shit about story, character or the intelligence of the viewer. Then again, any viewer forking over admission for this cynically crafted product probably deserves the insult. Fortunately, it only lasts ninety minutes.
Why It’s Here: This film adaptation of the Broadway musical adaptation of John Waters’s 1988 mainstream triumph comes on like a bad, over-energetic community theater production and never lets up. It is relentlessly upbeat and wants you to get caught up in the garish ecstasy, too. But Adam Shankman has no idea how to seduce the viewer; he just spends two hours trying to give you a blow job.
See This Film Instead: Cry Baby
How to Make It Work: No Shankman.
Comments: My first go-round with Hairspray was not a pleasant one: I walked out after an hour’s worth of propositioning masking as entertainment. When I finally subjected myself to the whole wannabe outre ordeal, my distaste for Shankman’s artless direction slipped from bitter to vituperative. For a former choreographer, he exhibits a shocking ignorance for the actual filming of the dance sequences (none of which come to life); he’s also too much of a pussy to keep John Travolta from indulging in that hideous Baltimore accent. Hairspray may have been a joy on the stage, but it is an unsightly travesty unredeemed by two very solid performances (courtesy of James Marsden and Amanda Bynes).
3. Southland Tales (Devin’s Review)
Why It’s Here: Richard Kelly threw everything he had into making a sophomore effort that would establish him as cinema’s Kurt Vonnegut. But a flood of ideas, no matter how clever or outlandish in their own right, is no substitute for a coherent narrative.
See This Film Instead: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
How to Make It Work: Team Kelly with a screenwriter who’s a whiz at structure, pare down the minutiae (which necessitated the three-part graphic novel prequel), and embrace limitation.
Comments: I’ve been talking to Kelly about Southland Tales for several years, and every conversation we had convinced me that he’d committed everything to this project. Every philosophical, religious, political, sociological, etc. idea that’d ever passed through Kelly’s noggin was going to be in this wild, counterculture melee of a motion picture. Unfortunately, these ideas clash in clumsy rather than provocative ways, suggesting less of a design than a shotgun-spray of irrelevance. Worse, the characters facing Kelly’s apocalypse are so vapid and unappealing that we’re more than happy to see this alternate reality go down in flames.
2. Halloween (Jeremy’s Review)
Why It’s Here: I’ve been asking that same question since I saw it.
See This Film Instead: John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned. Vampires. Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Anything other than this.
How to Make It Work: I wasn’t blown away by the "original" first half of Zombie’s film (which dramatizes Michael Myers psychosis as a fait accompli), but another forty minutes or so of that freak show would’ve been far preferable to the quickie run-through of Carpenter’s classic.
Comments: After entertaining a variety of well-reasoned defenses re: The Devil’s Rejects, I think the final paragraph of my review from last August says it best: "I’m beginning to think that Zombie’s come this far as a director because we’re surprised that he didn’t stink outright. Well, he’s beginning to stink retroactively, and if this film enjoys a $20 million-plus opening weekend, it’s likely he’ll stink from here to Rob Zombie’s The Thing. And if you think he lacks the gumption to climb that mountain o’ hubris, you haven’t been paying attention."
1. Mr. Woodcock (Jeremy’s Review)
Why It’s Here: There was never any other choice.
See This Film Instead: Weekend at Bernie’s 2
How to Make It Work: Dump every struck print in trash canisters all over skid row and let it keep the homeless warm for a night or two.
Comments: Unsure whether to play the film as a dark comedy or a gross-out affair, New Line and the two directors who worked on this (Craig Gillespie and David Dobkin) clash tones, which is merely jarring. It’s the nonstop succession of stock scenes and stolen gags from better movies (including a lift from Shaun of the Dead) that really knocks Woodcock into the realm of hateful. Though Billy Bob Thornton as an abusive elementary school gym coach should produce its share of laughs, the PG-13 rating keeps it safely out of Bad Santa territory. Not that it had a chance of getting there with the rotten screenplay (credited to Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert). Given the sheer waste of talent, I’d say this is the worst comedy I’ve seen since Paul Mazursky’s The Pickle.