Worst-of lists are always harder than best-ofs. A critic is always striving to see every buzzed-about or even just intriguing film possible, while anyone who does not explicitly have to see “Grown Ups 2” will likely go to the grave sufficiently pleased to live in at least some modicum of ignorance. Thus the list of any critic typically not on staff at a paper that assigns reviews for everything will invariably be top-heavy with good and great films and erratic when it comes to the nadir of one’s yearly viewing. But no individual’s list can or should ever be taken as anything but subjective, and the best ones aim for something more idiosyncratic than an established canon of masterpieces or heaping piles.
If that sounds like self-justification, you’re not wrong. One of the few upshots of living in a city with few to no advance screenings is the freedom from being assigned films like “RIPD” and “The Hangover Part III.” Besides, these are films that announce their badness from 100 yards; they would only be noteworthy if they somehow surpassed low expectations. If the best films I saw this year challenged preset notions of form and pushed worn-out narrative models into new areas of expressive truth, the worst were the ones that fancied themselves as new even as they cemented the worst aspects of filmmaking and writing models, works that upheld chaos cinema and petty moralism while positioning themselves as thrilling generic works or, more laughably still, incisive commentaries on modern sociopolitical issues. The 10 films below range from bloated, self-serious blockbusters to corrosive indies, with even a few disposable but truly heinous films quietly dumped into New York theaters to satisfy those in search of truly incompetent filmmaking. And even if some could be said to have better production value (and fewer deer pissing jokes) than the latest Adam Sandler vehicle, what they communicate is far more insidious and threatening to the possibilities of film at all levels of budgetary and studio consideration.
10. “Star Trek Into Darkness” (J.J. Abrams)
In a year filled with shameless, overplayed 9/11 imagery, J.J. Abrams’ latest “Star Trek” film took the cake, an insipid re-do of “The Wrath of Khan” whose only significant updates to the material are a few inverted scenarios and the filtering prism of terrorism. As ever, Abrams proves a clumsy, even downright incompetent visual filmmaker, with no amount of whizz-bang supercolor and blinding glares sufficient to cover up his lack of shot economy and the bewildering confusion of every frame, to say nothing of their careless assembly. In nearly every respect, the characters are scarcely different from in the first film, in some cases so unchanged by their experiences that the film could credibly have posited that Khan somehow erased all their memories and regressed the cast to its first days aboard the Enterprise. And as for the stupidity of Khan’s false identity, it is a great danger to review a film’s marketing over the actual product (and make no mistake, product is all this film is), but Abrams has made marketing a central component of his filmmaking process, and “Star Trek into Darkness” above all offends for representing a kind of cinema that is built entirely around its teaser, an ass-backwards approach that prioritizes the very worst aspects of Hollywood production.
9. “Blackfish” (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
This year has seen a glut of inventive, even innovative, nonfiction film the likes of which I cannot recall: “Leviathan” transcended documentary for a work of Godardian materialist poetry; “At Berkeley” announced itself as the heir to “Hoop Dreams’” consideration of American cultural priorities as it affects and shapes the young; “The Act of Killing” did what few documentaries do, acknowledge that even an act of supposed nonfiction is still filmmaking and is thus subject to filmmaking rules. These are but three of a host of samples. All of this is to say that more than ever, the unacceptable message-mongering and simple incompetence of form that characterizes the vast majority of documentary has been revealed as wanting.
Perhaps the worst offender (and this year’s runaway beneficiary of critics reviewing the message, not the film) is “Blackfish,” a film that puts forward a reasonable argument—that aquariums designed for entertainment over preservation are a sick, barbaric act predicated on a willful misunderstanding of animal life and needs—with a lack of relevant footage, critical insight or filmmaking acumen. The former can be explained as the result of SeaWorld’s strict control of what footage it has allowed to survive, but Cowperthwaite does nothing to supplement and contextualize that material, instead repeating it for shock effect with such abandon that a few plays of the Josh Fenderman dance from “Mr. Show” would not have seemed out of place. Worse still, some footage is artificially manipulated to take on an ominous tone, such as shots of trainers collecting semen from an orca that is set to audience applause, as if it were the climax of a show. “Blackfish” represents the worst of documentary filmmaking: poorly researched, presenting emotional conviction as truth and assembled for maximum impact over maximum illumination.
8. “Stranded” (Roger Christian)
I try not to pick on (or even see, really) no-budget genre features, but the combination of Christian Slater slumming for a paycheck and the director of “Battlefield Earth” proved too irresistible to pass up. The results are not disappointing, provided you are expected to be disappointed. A “Thing” knockoff about a group of workers on a lunar base slowly succumbing to a mysterious infection, “Stranded” is the sort of movie you need a plot summary for after watching, not because of its nebulous turns but because everything is shot so horrendously and its characters are so interchangeable that one needs to be reminded which murky blob in the vague outline of a person dies where. Though this list tends to favor more pervasive failures of form and content, “Stranded” is so close to a work of objective badness that it must fill a slot, however much it feels like kicking a dead dog.
7. “Paradise” (Diablo Cody)
Diablo Cody has been coming under fire since she rose to prominence for overly precious dialogue and reductive plots that revolve around insufferably self-sure characters, complaints that have always seemed to falter in the face of her actual work, which may be steeped in their protagonists’ blinkered myopia but nonetheless leaves that self-centered cuteness open for critique. “Paradise,” Cody’s directorial debut, seems to go out of its way to live up to even the nastiest slam of her writing, a film about a small-town Evangelical (Julianne Hough, the first sign of trouble) whose disfigurement in a plane crash induces a break from God that takes the form of a carnal trip to Vegas.
Where Cody’s other films gradually evinced a humanity from a superficial surface, “Paradise” sticks resolutely to confirming that initial impression: jokes are made about religious, rural towns that make the Christian background of Kenneth on “30 Rock” sound as thoughtfully, angrily sculpted as Stephen Dedalus’, while her exposure to the temptations of the flesh at all times feel overly safe and hesitant (the average teenager cuts loose at prom with more abandon that this woman does in various Vegas hellholes). Punctuated by a moral so awkwardly, suddenly stated it reads as if airdropped into the coda, “Paradise” is a work so condescending to its characters that its final note of half-assed sympathy is but the most insulting dig of all.
6. “The Place Beyond the Pines” (Derek Cianfrance)
Between this and “Blue Valentine,” Derek Cianfrance is really making a name for himself as the finest maker of concussed epics around, ambitious works that seem to have everything they need in place for a sweeping view of America, until someone opens their mouth and starts slurring out sheer nonsense. For all of the aspiration in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” it is at all times a relentlessly forward-moving work, which is just as well to bypass the smeared sight and sound of Cianfrance’s boastfully composed but meaningless frames. Jonathan Rosenbaum once said of “Taxi Driver” that it lied about race, a curious statement that always confused me until I saw how this film updated Scorsese’s glimpses of Bickle’s narrow stare in the presence of people of color. These are not measured, subtle engagements with a mired history but simple hatred that helps push the plot momentum that much faster.
Class and racial anxiety are rendered in such broad strokes as to render the film never once approaches a true critique of divisions in American life, while a “sins of the father” storyline implicates multiple generations in this foundation of sand to reduce an attempted eagle-eyed view of social decay into a moralistic drama that boils down, after much preamble, to a middle-class kid acting thuggish what real danger looks like. It’s like watching a train wreck, if the train’s engineer crawled from the rubble, pointed proudly to his catastrophic mess and said, “This is what the bankers do every single day.
5. “The Baytown Outlaws” (Barry Battles)
“The Baytown Outlaws” is such a forgettable movie it hardly bears dwelling upon, but however commonly this occurs, the waste of Billy Bob Thornton can always turn a bad but disposable film into a true affront. A hicksploitation riff on “The Boondock Saints” is the best way to describe this film, and also a good substitute for ipecac to anyone who gives a damn about films. Few films outside the work of Zack Snyder so clearly illustrate that slow motion is a privilege, not a right, and its attempts to make a joke of everything fall below a knowingly ironic play with grindhouse-level entertainment and result in merely glib acknowledgment of the film’s asinine carnage. As Thornton himself asks, shortly before exiting the film to go anywhere else, “Doesn’t anyone use finesse anymore?”
4. “Escape from Tomorrow” (Randy Moore)
Praised for its frankly unimpressive production (who at Disney World DOESN’T have a camera on them?), “Escape from Tomorrow” collapses totally when one begins to watch the actual picture in question. The film’s slightly off-kilter, though hardly surreal, view of Disney’s imagery is cynical enough to have clearly been made without consent but, in the finally tally, so tame and so willing to pull its punches to try and secure a release that it never remotely becomes a truly daring fudge of the corporation's iconography. Ooh, depicting “It’s a Small World” as a miniature hell on Earth, how positively sinful. One is also left to wonder why we must spend time with a man who abuses his children, chases underage tail around the park and manages to do both with such banal lack of presence that he is too sleep-inducing to prompt debate over whether his actions are meant to be satirical. But judging from the general level of total hostility the film reserves for women, I’m guessing “no.”
3. “Wrong” (Quentin Dupieux)
Speaking of atrocious faux-surrealism, there’s Quentin Dupieux, who follows up “Rubber,” a film with three interesting minutes at its start, with “Wrong,” a film without a redeeming second anywhere in its 95 minutes. Ostensibly about the dullness of one man’s rote life being shaken up by increasingly odd occurrences, “Wrong” ultimately says nothing about the wasted life of the digital age, and nothing in the film—not its indoor rain, dog telepathy nor firefighters taking dumps next to the fire they should be combating—is half so much a strange cognitive break as the obsolescence of its view of modern offices, which is a full decade out of date and communicating nothing that wasn’t said with more with in “Office Space.” The only moment of insight comes courtesy of William Fichtner’s bizarre dognapper, who becomes an inadvertent stand-in for the director as someone who teaches people a lesson that they have already demonstrably proved to have internalized without his insistent intervention. For all his “commentary” on modern life, Dupieux confirms that he is no better than a YouTube content producer, at his best unable to create anything that shouldn’t be posted as a five-minute viral clip with cats and autotuned remixes in its “related videos” section.
2. “A Good Day to Die Hard” (John Moore)
The only upshot to John McTiernan being in jail at the moment is that he has, one hopes, been spared the sight of John Moore’s contribution to the franchise he began in 1988 and somehow elevated with a sequel that made a New York “Ulysses” out of an absurd action movie. The lessons of McTiernan’s grasp of spatial geography are totally lost on Moore, whose film seems to go out of its way to undo all the pleasures of the series with a chaotically crafted work that can only approach its predecessors by glibly referencing them. An early car chase is a textbook example of how action cinema should not be crafted, an extended scrape of metal in which every shot has been so pushed so close to the moving objects that one cannot even dismiss its pathetic direction as coverage. There’s also something particularly grating about this film abandoning what little effort the previous one made to set up McClane’s daughter as a viable side character, quickly shifting focus onto the son to reassert a puffed-up masculinity. Metallic flesh-tones and an anonymously rendered Moscow could be said to be worthy of DTV filmmaking were a handful of director working in that inglorious genre (John Hyams, Isaac Florentine and Roel Reiné, among others) not so much more talented and capable and worthy of a big shot than Moore.
1. “Pietá” (Kim Ki-Duk)
The word “satire” has effectively lost all meaning these days, as artists unshackled from true threats of reprisal have tended to forgo any attempt at actual wit and subversion in favor of preening cruelty. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kim Ki-Duk’s “Pietá,” a film that adopts the superior posture of Michael Haneke’s most exploitative work as it seeks to mercilessly tear down all of society. Everything, that is, except the blameless Kim, the beacon of clear-headed sight in a world gone mad. The theme of his incestuous, abusive film is the effect of capitalism on our moral fiber, which is not something you will ever intuit from its allegorical setup because the film will belabor this point over and over, clearly not trusting you to piece even two strands of like material together without help. The mark of a terrible wit is the equation of harsh, mean-spirited “truth” with humor, and whatever “Pièta’s” brand of meaningless extremity has to say about a modern lack of empathy, it speaks only to that lack in Kim, not society.