Here it is, the most dreaded part of a critic's job. Now is the time to pour a cup of tea, settle into the office chair, and cast our minds back to the year's cinematic experiences that left a mark. And by “mark,” I mean either a discolored vomit stain, or a deep painful bruise of yellowish indigo. 2012, as it has been observed by many critics, proved to be a rather good year for film; It's always a good sign when you have to whittle a few great films off of your year-end list just to get it down to ten. But every year has its share of stinkers, and amidst legitimately great films like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, there were some awful rotten goose eggs littering the landscape just to remind us, as critics, to remain humble.
I've said this before: Great films have a universal quality. If you scour the internet, it's likely you'll find many top ten lists from both critics and from fans, and many common films will appear on them. Bad films, in contrast, have a very personal quality. In a way, they leave a deeper impact, and, as such, will be personally offensive to one person more than they will be universally reviled. To quote an old Irish proverb: A good bell can be heard far; a bad bell, still further.
So here is a list of films that made me squirm in my seat, sneer, and fight back nausea in some cases. Some are obscure, some are well-known. All were films that hurt me personally. A note: I will not include any films that were universally mocked or poorly reviewed just for the sake of it. Many people liked to make fun of films like Dark Shadows or The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 or Battleship, none of which could be included amongst the worst films of the year (indeed, I am one of those critics who will openly defend Dark Shadows). These are not items for the wolf pack. These are just toxic movies. I will count down from the tenth worst, and end with the absolute worst. Starting with…
Hyde Park on Hudson (dir. Roger Michell)
Bill Murray plays FDR, and he's actually just fine. Indeed, his performance is so uncanny, you often forget you're watching Bill Murray, and actually get involved in the drama surrounding FDR. His performance is actually very impressive. The problem with getting involved with Hyde Park on Hudson's drama is that there isn't much to get involved in. Roosevelt begins having an affair with his smitten fifth cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), and she enters into this weird state of blissful complacency, wherein she observes the presidential world around her, meets the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Elizabeth Colman), and, uh… that's it I guess. In addition to the complete lack of any sort of real palpable drama, we're also treated to a scene where Daisy gives FDR a handjob in a car. That handjob, the film argues, is sort of the romantic crux of the film. Which is kind of disgusting.
Red Dawn (dir. Dan Bradley)
Most remakes, it could be argued, are pretty useless. The most useless remake I've seen in years was probably 2011's The Thing, although it could be argued that this year's Total Recall may also take that award. But a remake that was, in addition to being useless, both stupid and offensive was Dan Bradley's Red Dawn, remade from the 1984 original. Both films involve a Communist takeover of a small town in America, and a small group of young people who fight off invaders. The 1984 original was a chest-thumping relic of the Reagan era, and a clear product of the Cold War. This remake has no political affiliation whatsoever, and indeed, in an earlier cut of the film the bad guys were Chinese, only to be changed to Koreans at the last minute by nervous marketing gurus. It doesn't matter who we're fighting. We're America, and making violence is justified against any Other. Jingoistic, sloppy, dumb, and bad, Red Dawn made Battleship look subtle.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (dir. John Hyams)
I will say this in favor of the fourth/sixth film in the Universal Soldier franchise: The violence is excellent. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning has some truly brutal fights, a lot of bullet-induced arterial spray, and an awesome fight scene that takes place inside a sporting goods store. The violence does, however, go a little over the top in many places: a thug guns down a string of half-naked prostitutes in one scene, and Jean-Clause Van Damme shoots a crying woman in her panties, right before murdering a five-year-old. If the ickiness of those scenes don't get to you, the film's dreamy, dumb, impossible-to-follow plot will. It's a plot full of hallucinations, double-backs, and bizarre moments where the lead character has to act opposite himself. I couldn't tell you why there are two of that guy. It's violence is only occasionally fun. Mostly it's just an icky mish-mash of confused plot points.
The Watch (dir. Akiva Schaffer)
I have to constantly remind myself that I even saw The Watch. It was such a bland and forgettable comedy, it barely stuck in my mind. I suppose that's an advantage of certain bad movies; they won't take up space in your memory for too long. The Watch, about a quartet of lame white guys who form a neighborhood crime watch to apprehend malevolent space aliens, is full of limp improv, squirm-inducing sex panic jokes, and horrible plot points; Ben Stiller's character, for instance, has been lying to his child-desiring wife about his potency. When she learns the truth, she just shrugs it off. Shouldn't that be a bigger moment? The funniest person in the film, Billy Crudup, is only in a few scenes. When the alien action begins, it is unremarkable, despite the gallons of green slime. And I usually like any movie with green slime. Also this: to accentuate how HAWD our four lame heroes are, we're treated to at least five shots of the four of them, walking abreast in slow-motion, to the strains of loud gangsta rap. I call a moratorium on this.
The Inbetweeners Movie (dir. Ben Palmer)
Based on a hit TV show, The Inbetweeners Movie plays like a British American Pie knockoff, only missing any of the wit or charm or subtlety of its American counterpart. A quartet of clichéd teen movie types have made the usual pact to get laid when they go on vacation to Malia, only to discover that the hot-to-trot bikini babes of their fantasies are thin on the ground. They do find a quartet of ladies, and the ladies are much more intelligent, charming, and interesting than they are, and I kind of wish the movie had been about them. Instead, we get to see a string of truly mean-spirited abuse scenes, where our loutish and insufferable heroes mistreat, badger, and browbeat these four young ladies, all in the name of comedy. It's a comedy without laughs, and no small amount of misogyny. It shoots for a sweet ending, and lands with a wet plop at your feet.
Freak Dance (dirs. Matt Besser, Neil Mahoney)
I feel bad about bringing this film up, as it's somewhat unfair to single out an obscure and little film only to bat it back down again. I'm going to do it anyway, though, because this film made me feel worse than any critical violation could. Freak Dance is a straight-to-video spoof of '80s dance flicks, as imagined by the comedians at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. They poke fun at the outfits of the 1980s, the music of the 1980s, and the clichés from '80s movies like Footloose. Few of the jokes are funny, and all smack of desperate mugging and scenery chewing. The bad comedy could be forgiven, had the film actually bothered to climax in a meaningful way and actually bothered to make the dancing impressive and complex, but it does neither. Here's a hint: if you want to make a dance film, be it comedy or drama, make a dance film. Hire dancers. Dance well. Watch Step Up Revolution a few dozen times. Then write your silly screenplay.
Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding (dir. Bruce Beresford)
Ew. Ew. Ew. Choose your preferred term: Touchy-feely, saccharine, treacly, manipulative. Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding is all of those and more. It's a disgrace, and a disservice to three generations of talented actresses. Catherine Keener plays a workaholic mom who was recently dumped by her husband. She bundles up the kids (the college-age daughter is played by Elisabeth Olsen), and goes to live with her ultra-hippie mom, played by Jane Fonda. What proceeds is not a feminist parable of independence and girl-power polemics, but the opposite. All the characters will only be able to overcome their neuroses and personal conflicts once they hook up with hunky, bearded mountain men in flannel shirts (represented by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). And smoke some weed. The entire final third of the movie is a string of teary confessions that is so effing weepy that you'll want to sop the snot off of the screen yourself.
The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure (dir. Matthew Diamond)
The very poster announced that The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure was no more than a marketing ploy, intended to distract your kids for a scant 75 minutes before they begin demanding more soda. Cheap, bizarre, cloying, abrasive, and strangely watchable, The Oogieloves follows a trio of hydrocephalic alien creatures as they trek across Loveland to retrieve a series of magical balloons for their comatose pillow friend. Each balloon is being held by a different celebrity guest, including Chazz Palmenteri, Jaime Pressley, Cloris Leachman, and Cary Elwes. The Oogieloves eat pancakes, play in a band, and converse with talking windows and vacuum cleaners. To make sure the kiddies are paying attention, captions will appear on the screen periodically entreating them to rise from their seats and dance along. While The Oogieloves is pretty effing terrible, I have to admit that there's a kind of appealing purity to it. Here is a dumb film that has no qualms with its stance as a product. That's more than can be said for most mainstream summer blockbusters. Plus, I enjoyed its hallucinatory elements. This is one of the worst films of the year, yet perhaps I still recommend it.
That's My Boy (dir. Sean Anders)
Not only was That's My Boy not funny, but it takes place is a bizarre parallel universe where all decent values have been inverted. Adam Sandler plays a fortysomething d*ckhead who once enjoyed childhood fame for impregnating his now-imprisoned Jr. High teacher. The progeny of that union was Andy Samberg, now a damaged and neurotic adult, traumatized by a childhood of abuse and neglect at the hands of his immature and alcoholic father. That's My Boy, though, rather than forcing Sandler to grow up and take responsibility for his wholly irresponsible behavior and arrested-in-the-'80s-adolescence, actually posits that Samberg is the weak one who just needs to relax a little and learn to love the beer-swilling white trash monster that barely raised him. This is a universe that rewards heavy-drinking pop-culture-addled ignorami, and takes the piss out of the rich, the kind, the decent, and the sane, not to mention anyone who is a woman or a minority. I needed a few days to recover after this one.
Act of Valor (dirs. Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh)
Set up as a plot-free stunt spectacular for real-life navy SEALS, Act of Valor is jingoistic, racist, morally irresponsible, and worships violence and war with the fervor of a bizarre Saturday Morning cartoon made by General Patton's id. I understand that the film was made with real soldiers demonstrating real battle tactics, and that they used live ammunition for the gunfight scenes, but the action scenes were filmed so badly, any ecstatic truth that may have been conveyed was buried under cheap action movie clichés and dumb dialogue. The bad guys are all nondescript, nation-free brown people with vague plans to take down America for no other reason, I suppose, than they hate our freedom. The heroes are equally nondescript, and aren't even given the decent requisite single character traits to tell them apart. Act of Valor pays an almost sexual homage to violence and war, while intentionally jettisoning any semblance of character or drama, which are, as a result, depicted as signs of weakness. The ultimate message seems to be that erasing your identity and shooting strangers is the ultimate heroic act. I'm not often offended by a movie, but Act of Valor takes the number one spot for that very reason: I was offended.
#0: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (dirs. Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim)
Lower than low, though, is the despicable comedy Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, a meta-comedy based on the trashy/absurdist TV program "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!," which is, from what I hear, only funny when you're stoned out of your gourd. The film is a series of intentionally baffling set pieces wherein our heroes, Tim and Eric, commit random acts of bizarre cruelty, and disgusting acts of insensitive cruelty. The film is so busy sending up all manner of comedic conventions, however, that it forgets to actually establish any rules. As such, most of the jokes feel like parodies of parodies. I suppose, from an intellectual standpoint, this film could be seen as an oddball object lesson on comedy conventions, but it would have helped if the film weren't so forthrightly repellant and offensively unfunny. There's a scene wherein Ray Wise entreats a sextet of tunic-clad 10-year-old boys to unleash a stream of liquid fecal matter directly onto Eric Wareheim. I posit the following: there are no circumstances under which that scene could be made funny or tolerable. Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie is an experiment on how off-putting a movie can be. I suppose it succeeded.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film Schooland The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.