Please allow me a moment of contemplation.
It is not my job, as a film critic, to fan the flames of your enthusiasm. It is my job to be critical, genuinely critical. Not reactionary but observant and thoughtful. I have a responsibility to praise films when it is honest and reasonable to do so, and when it is necessary it is also my responsibility to be severe in my judgment. Ignoring the negative would be damaging to the very idea of having standards.
We don’t have to accept what filmmakers give us. We don’t have to say “thank you” for subpar or even mediocre distractions from our lives. To deny ourselves our right to say “no,” and to suggest that we don’t deserve quality entertainment, is to deny ourselves our rights as individuals and as that very thing which may be even more significant to motion picture studios… as consumers.
To wit: singling out the worst motion pictures of the year is an act that may seem petty, or possibly mean. But I believe that if the year of 2016 has taught us anything it’s that we all have an awful lot of room for improvement. We must take stock of where we’ve been, and consider the steps and missteps that led us there in the first place, before we can backtrack and find a brand new path. We must say that we can do better, as artists and as an audience, and persevere to make better choices in the future.
These are the sixteen films that, when I look back on 2016, make me wince. They offended my sensibilities. They failed to achieve modest expectations of quality. They are proof positive that no matter how hard we try, we can still fall short of our goals. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but we can all agree that bad movies – whatever your personal definition may be – get made anyway. So let’s try to figure out how that happened, and remind ourselves once again that as human beings, we deserve to consume quality art and entertainment just as much as we deserve clean air, healthy food, and a society that cares for our needs.
In alphabetical order…
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Say what you will about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – because I myself certainly have – but its efforts to transform Lewis Carroll’s perpetually befuddled protagonist into a contemporary feminist hero was an honest, albeit muddled, new interpretation of the material. The follow-up sends Alice back through time to solve a problem that she caused in the first place, and indeed we learn over the course of Alice Through the Looking Glass that she and another of our “beloved” heroes was directly responsible for the tragic genocide that eventually led to her heroism in the previous film. There’s no going back from this misguided, bizarre sequel/prequel, even though it upstages the previous film in every visual aspect. It’s a vibrant, but catastrophic follow-up.
BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s celebrated 1988 graphic novel is troublesome by today’s standards. It’s a masterful piece of writing and artwork which explores the tragic, symbiotic nature of good and evil, and calls both sides out as arguable lunacy. But it does so by victimizing an iconic female hero, Batgirl, in ways that are grotesque and cruel. So it makes some sense that Sam Liu’s film version would expand on Batgirl’s character to give her the respect she deserves and prevent the audience from feeling like she existed only as a stray plot point.
But the first act of the film version of Batman: The Killing Joke is a shambles, an unrelated storyline that attempts to consider Batgirl as an individual, sexual being who wrestles with how men dehumanize her… but which does so in such a trite, hackneyed manner that it does her and the film an enormous disservice. By the time The Killing Joke actually gets around to the comic book, the damage has been done, and any value the original material had is hidden behind the filmmakers’ awkward additions and the plot’s awkward and demeaning new context. Maybe it was a mistake to adapt Batman: The Killing Joke in the first place, or maybe it just required a heck of a lot more nuance than DC Animation was able to provide in this production.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Another misguided Batman retcon, this one reimagining The Dark Knight as a misguided billionaire who lets his phobia of aliens lead him down a path that goes far past moral compromise, and into outright villainy. Meanwhile, an attempt to transform Superman into the selfish hero from Man of Steel into a character recognizably “super” comes up short, thanks in large part to repeated speeches from known scholars – like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, no less – telling the audience in no uncertain terms how awful he is.
You can complain all you want about the plot holes and coincidences and vague motivations and completely baffling details, but what really matters is that in an effort to entertain the masses, Zack Snyder and the executives at Warner Bros. decided to cater to our base natures instead of inspiring us to overcome them. They went in a disturbing direction and failed to find their way back again, mostly due to the narrative’s structural failings. Batman v Superman is a film that declares how big and important it is without backing it up with tangible evidence of its social or artistic value.
What’s more, it brought out the worst in film lovers all over the world, dividing audiences into “fans” and “critics,” as if it somehow wasn’t in the fans’ best interests to be critical, and as if critics aren’t inherently passionate fans. It’s okay to like Batman v Superman, but it’s entirely reasonable to point to the film’s many flaws and say that we all deserve better. Much, much better. After all, we’ve had better Batman and Superman movies in the past.
THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY
There were so many wonderful comedies in 2016 that they warranted their own, separate article. But you won’t find The Brothers Grimsby on that list. It’s an action-comedy about brothers separated by adoption. One became a superspy (Mark Strong) and the other became an alcoholic lout who puts fireworks up his anus. It’s a bland set-up for a movie to begin with, and the only spice the makers of The Brothers Grimsby were able to add involved AIDS jokes, animal sex, exploded rectums, gay panic and infected testicles. It’s all the worst parts of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls writ very, very large, and it’s undeniably repellant. Worse than that: The Brothers Grimsby is so reliant on gross-out humor that even the shock wears off quickly, leaving audiences with a film that’s not just disgusting, but also not funny.
Cinematic adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels have their own, particular brand of charm. These are stories of wholesome people in wholesome situations, whose tragedies are usually contrived and whose twists are usually ludicrous. But pretty people usually end up together in the end, and life is somehow affirmed in one way or another.
And yet, even though we had some vague idea of what we were getting from the outset, The Choice seems to represent the nadir of this sub-subgenre. It’s a film that is completely devoid of dramatic interest for the majority of the running time, which is dedicated to two bland archetypes who will obviously fall in love eventually. The Choice makes us wait forever for that one plot point to finally kick in, only to tack on an overwrought medical catastrophe in the second half, only to resolve that dilemma with one of the silliest plot developments on records. At least, that’s how it would appear to anyone in the audience who doesn’t believe in the medicinal properties of gazebos.
There’s “good,” there’s “good for a Nicholas Sparks adaptation,” and then there’s The Choice. Choose wisely.
There’s a market for maudlin, and a way to make maudlin marketable. There’s even a way to make maudlin movies that earn an audience’s tears, honestly and directly. But a film like Collateral Beauty comes across as a cynical exploitation of an audience’s emotions, in large part because it’s a film about exploiting the protagonist’s emotions for financial gain.
Collateral Beauty is a film about three executives who gaslight their fourth partner, played by Will Smith, into thinking he’s having real conversations with the personifications of Death, Love and Time after his young daughter dies. They hire actors to play Death, Love and Time in order to teach him valuable lessons that heal his soul, while simultaneously conning him into giving up his life’s work. It’s a disturbing concept and the film never really demonstrates that it understands that there’s a conflict of interest involved, brushing aside such accusations with an unchallenged “Trust us, we mean well.”
Again, it’s a story about exploiting a man’s grief for financial gain, a film that attempts to exploit the audience’s capacity for sympathy in an attempt to make money. That might be forgivable if there were something to glean from these proceedings but the whole bizarre construct has been built on sand. To watch Collateral Beauty is to sink slowly over the course of a whole movie. That sense of drowning isn’t cathartic, it’s a little bit horrifying.
There may be a lot of overlap between “bad” and “incompetent,” but they don’t necessarily come hand-in-hand. Many of the films on this list are technically well-crafted, but that craftsmanship can be in service of such a wrongheaded premise, for example, that it’s hard to appreciate any of the film’s finer qualities. The Darkness doesn’t have that contrast. It’s a bad premise, made badly.
The Darkness is a story we’ve seen before, about a seemingly idyllic family afflicted by a supernatural presence, which either exacerbates or reveals the horrors beneath that façade. Except when this family takes home Native-American talismans from their trip to the Grand Canyon, none of the “horrifying” events relate to their problems. The husband is briefly tempted to cheat on his spouse, but he doesn’t. The wife is tempted to take up drinking, but she doesn’t. The daughter is bulimic but that problem gets solved after a single doctor’s visit. The son is autistic and the movie treats the condition as a source of horror, to the extent that it becomes pretty darned insulting to anyone who actually gives a damn about the realities of the condition.
And it all comes together with choppy disinterest, with scenes that feel disconnected from one another, generating exposition for moments that didn’t really require any, and jumping the gun on character development so that nothing has any emotional impact. The Darkness may not be the most unwatchable motion picture of the year, but few wide release films could be accused of being nearly this shoddy in 2016.
Film critics often criticize the films of Adam Sandler, and although some do seem to make a sport of it, it’s hard to dispute that he makes troublesome movies. His latest exercise in the lowest common denominator was The Do-Over, which stars David Spade as a human doormat and Adam Sandler as a really cool guy. They reconnect at a high school reunion and Sandler sees just how miserable Spade is, so he fakes their deaths so they can start anew. There are worse ideas for a comedy, and frankly, for about half an hour or so, The Do-Over isn’t half bad.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Do-Over is a mess. The wish-fulfillment fantasy of the premise falls to the wayside in favor of an increasingly ludicrous storyline about the cure for cancer. And yes, “ludicrous” isn’t necessarily an insult when it describes a comedy but The Do-Over wants us to believe in its reality and take the plight of its characters seriously. Which we were doing until the twists came along, and until Sandler’s character starts arguing that homosexuality is directly related to sexual violence, and Spade’s character starts beating up a woman while screaming that she’s a proxy for every woman he’s ever known. It starts sweet and simple, and gets unnecessarily complicated and vicious. It’s hard not to feel betrayed, so go ahead and feel betrayed. The Do-Over is a movie that turns on you and it just isn’t pretty.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Remember when I said that “bad” and “incompetent” don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand? That’s important to remember when talking about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a handsome production set in the beloved world of Harry Potter, which expands on the mythology of that universe with interesting ideas and a talented cast, with impressive visual effects and fun new creatures. It’s also one of the dullest motion pictures of the year.
The problem with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that its story is presented, but not really “told.” There’s a huge difference between telling somebody that a couple of teenagers were killed in these woods, for example, and putting a flashlight under your face and doing all the scary sounds. By the time director David Yates helmed the last four Harry Potter movies, three other directors with a lot more theatricality to their credit had already introduced audiences to the characters. So he had some leeway to simply present the last few stories and let our residual enthusiasm carry us through.
But with Fantastic Beasts, no care is taken to make us feel anything about the protagonists and villains. They mill about New York City in the 1920s, dealing with the plot but not their feelings, and that leaves a movie about impossible wonders feeling completely ordinary. A movie about a secret world of wizards and monsters probably shouldn’t be accurately described in one word as “drab,” but here we are anyway, with a film full of great ideas and craftsmanship, but a story that’s rendered inert through a seeming lack of interest. And if the filmmaker doesn’t seem to be excited by the story, why should the audience feel any differently?
GOD’S NOT DEAD 2
Whatever your personal beliefs may be, religion has always been a driving force in the culture, artistically and economically, philosophically and politically. A film about the grey areas that that separate church and state, as told from the perspective of a high school teacher who – in order to answer a student’s matter-of-fact question – briefly discusses Jesus Christ in a historical context, and who later gets sued for that, could have been an interesting examination of how both sides have arguments, and how both sides can blow their grievances completely out of proportion.
God’s Not Dead 2 isn’t that movie, which should come as no surprise since the first God’s Not Dead was also a reductionist persecution fantasy, about how nobody has it worse than Christians in America these days, and how atheism is only a smokescreen for people who hate God or aren’t well-educated enough to believe in him yet. It’s an insulting motion picture on a variety of levels, not just to people who disagree with its religion or politics, but also to Christians who genuinely deserve smarter discourse about faith than this film can provide.
Add in some poor performances, awkward writing and middling production values, and you’ve got a film just doesn’t work, regardless of your position on its themes.
GODS OF EGYPT
Gods of Egypt is such a nutty motion picture, I had to see it twice to decide if it really was “bad” or if it was some kind of misunderstood masterpiece. But, well, as you can see it’s on this list.
Alex Proyas’ fantasy adventure takes place in Ancient Egypt, where a Scottish war god has killed his father and taken over the planet, transforming heaven into a refuge for the wealthy and building a robotic supersuit out of the glowing body parts of his godly family members. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Rush shoots space monsters out of the sky with a rocket launcher every day for eternity.
Alas, that only SOUNDS interesting. The whole production is filled with actors who are either too good for this and floundering (even the great Chadwick Boseman turns in an embarrassing turn, as a know-it-all god with his hand permanently planted on his chin), or aren’t quite good enough to make any of these events seem plausible. Meanwhile, the production waffles between distractingly cheap and unnecessarily expensive, and making Gods of Egypt feel like only half a movie. And not the good half. It’s one of the most mind-boggling misfires in years.
The tragedy of the Jason Bourne franchise isn’t that the last two movies weren’t as good as the originals, it’s that they have turned into exactly the sort of generic action pablum that the original movies broke away from. A franchise based on intriguing characters, semi-plausibility and grounded action sequences has, with The Bourne Legacy and now Jason Bourne, transformed into a delivery system for simpleminded, weakly motivated globetrotting adventures, packed with chase scenes that make us feel nothing, and storylines that pile on “revelations” that add nothing of interest.
Jason Bourne was supposed to be a return to the glory days of the series, with the return of both Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, but their interest in this character seems to have waned. If anything, you practically pinpoint the exact moment the filmmakers seem to have given up on the series and stopped taking it seriously: it’s the moment when Jason Bourne is following someone, and could use a tracking device, and he turns to his left and sees a bowlful of free tracking devices. If that doesn’t tell you the inspiration for this once-inspired series has run dry, I don’t know what could.
In my review of Passengers I referred to the movie as “Creeper Ascending,” because it combined the spacefaring weirdness of Jupiter Ascending with the creepiness of real-life creepers. In retrospect I wish I had dubbed it “Baby, It’s Space Outside,” because what Morten Tyldum’s movie more-or-less amounts to is a woman trapped in the vast void of space with a man who expects her to fall in love with him because he’s her only option.
Passengers toys with the ethical conundrum of its scenario. It’s about a man who wakes up from cryogenic slumber 90 years before the end of his space voyage, doomed to die of old age and loneliness, who decides he’s fallen in love with another sexy passenger and decides to wake her up to keep him company, dooming (and effectively murdering) her too. But any conversation that could have been had about the ethics of this situation, the sort of conversation that quality science-fiction has been used to illustrate since the dawn of the genre, is negated by the film’s trite third act. Reality warps and condescension rains down, so that ultimately the victim is the one who has to change.
It’s such a slick production, with charismatic performances and impressive visual effects, that it becomes all the more frustrating that Passengers devolves into misguided unpleasantness. It’s a pretty motion picture turned ugly by its apparent inability to acknowledge the disturbing fact that hunky, charming Chris Pratt isn’t playing a hero. He’s playing a monster.
Suicide Squad is the best DC superhero movie released in theaters this year, but that’s not saying much. David Ayers’ film just has no aspirations towards profundity, so the fact that it’s merely a poorly developed action movie that appears to have been chopped into bacon bits in the editing room doesn’t seem like as much of a letdown as when Batman v Superman did it.
Suicide Squad spends its entire running time coasting on charm. Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Jay Hernandez are in top form here, as part of a team of villains enlisted to stop another villain from destroying the Earth, but the rest of the ensemble cast flounders in underwritten characters and repetitive action sequences involving killing faceless monsters with no personality and shooting down one helicopter after another. There’s variety inherent in the concept but aside from the film’s constant exposition, assuring us that all these fiends are distinctive and interesting, Suicide Squad never quite seems to back it up with exciting interactions or imaginative situations. It’s a whole lot of high-concept for a whole lot of low entertainment.
David Ayer’s film may be entertaining but it’s not interesting entertainment. It’s got as much substance as a trip to the Hot Topic website, an in-your-face reminder that you like these characters without much in the way of supporting evidence. Suicide Squad tries to trick you into forgiving its sins just because that would be in-keeping with the film’s anarchic mission statement. I encourage you not to let that happen.
For years, X-Men fans have been clamoring for 20th Century Fox to finally introduce the live-action version of one of the heroes’ most notorious villains: Apocalypse, a godlike mutant who believes that only the strong deserve to survive. I think if us fans had been given a crystal ball and seen how Bryan Singer envisioned the character, we would have told him not to bother.
X-Men: Apocalypse, rather like Jason Bourne, takes an interesting franchise and all but completely derails it. At their best the X-Men movies were about salient issues of alienation and persecution, starring all-powerful stand-ins for groups who are marginalized in real life. Whatever their flaws these philosophical and social allegories were genuine in the better X-Men movies, but there’s none of that in X-Men: Apocalypse. It opens with a scene in Ancient Egypt so unbelievably preposterous it makes Gods of Egypt seem normal, and it proceeds to tell a story about recruiting evil mutants to destroy the world, and using omnipotent powers to make groovy costumes and watch television.
Some of the young cast is quite excellent, but the principle storyline of X-Men: Apocalypse is so uninspired that by the time it descends into people pushing CGI colors at each other for several minutes at a time, and certainly by the moment the villain is vanquished with nothing more than the power of friendship, it genuinely seems as though perhaps it’s time to put this series to bed. Or at least reboot it from scratch. It certainly seems like the filmmakers don’t have much of an interest anymore, so – to reiterate an earlier point – why should we?
Audiences literally asked Ben Stiller to make Zoolander 2, and honestly I can’t really remember why. The original film is a minor comedy classic, a spectacle of charming dumbness that holds up remarkably well on repeat viewings, but it’s not like the characters were rich enough to warrant another story, and it’s certainly not like the story left any dangling threads.
So it comes as no surprise that Zoolander 2 isn’t particularly good, but man, is it not funny. Pretty much at all. It’s a lot of shouting and ignorance and oddly judgmental attitudes. It’s “spiked” with big cameos the way a Shirley Temple is “spiked” with grenadine. It’s obvious that everyone’s ambitions were pretty low for this one but when all you’re really going for is “genial lowbrow comedy” and you airball it this hard, it’s a criticism that’s worth pointing out. In the years to come Zoolander 2 is going to become an ur example of how not to make a comedy sequel, and with good cause.
Top Photos: Summit Entertainment / 20th Century Fox / Columbia Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.