2015 Year in Film: The Bottom Ten
Despite the fact that this was one of the better years at the movie theater in recent memory (even potentially challenging 2007 for its new millennium crown, though it is stiff competition), not every release can be a winner. Though positivity should often be the aim, it is fun to take a day out of this week of excellence to shine a light on the not so excellent, perhaps to give us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes in order to avoid repeating them.
Luckily, I generally have the freedom to avoid films that look truly terrible (hence the lack of The Ridiculous Six or The Cobbler or United Passions and the like). I am sure there are more awful movies that were released this year than some or many of the movies on this list. I remain thankfully ignorant of such things.
Without further ado, the ten worst films I saw in 2015.
The most jumbled Pixar film this side of Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur took forever to get off the ground, and after its release it’s a wonder why they bothered. This film has so many moving parts, spending little to no time perfecting any of them (or adequate-ing any of them, really), that it feels more like a series of skits left on the cutting room floor with no connective tissue to keep the momentum up or drive interest in any of its characters, the outtakes of a better and more accomplished film. Much like the also disappointing Brave, The Good Dinosaur suffers from an extreme familiarity disorder, borrowing from classic Disney moments from Bambi to The Lion King while never succeeding in forging its own identity. The choice the characterize cave-boy Spot as a dog is cheap, a shortcut to make up for the lack of intrigue that comes to define the experience of watching the film. This is a Pixar movie made solely for the children of the audience, lacking the corssover appeal that has been Pixar’s calling card since the Toy Story days. Other than its gobsmacking almost photo realistic vistas of natural beauty, there just isn’t anything to recommend here.
9. Jurassic World
Ooooooooof. I wasn’t exactly expecting high cinema, but even considering that, I was rather shocked by how aggressively dumb Jurassic World managed to be. Possibly worse than the general dumbness of the script and the story, though, is the design of it all. The last time I saw a film that felt so layered and plastic-y, it was one of the Star Wars prequels. Sure, the dinosaurs have more range of movement, and they can do cool things like sprint alongside Chris Pratt riding a motorcycle or beat the hell out of each other in spectacular ways, but they also cost Jurassic World any and every sense of real world weight. Every shot looks stitched together from a dozen different sources; the characters don’t feel like they’re living in the world they’re running around in, and even scenes shot on what must be actual sets with no particular CG effects have that same green screen feel to them. Perhaps they did this purposefully to match, but that doesn’t make it look good. And this is the guy that Disney tapped to direct Episode IX. On its own, the story is silly, but it’s at least innocuously so. But when you throw in the profoundly unimpressive visuals on top of the not at all good story, things get dire quickly.
8. Black Mass
It’s entirely possible that Scott Cooper just isn’t for me. Crazy Heart did nothing for me and Out of the Furnace suffered from a serious case of over-directing. In bringing to life the story of infamous South Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, Cooper falls into the same traps he had previously, allowing his charismatic lead (Johnny Depp) to run roughshod all over the film while nothing around him matters or resonates. There are a lot of good actors wastes and a lot of subplots hastily shoved to the side in favor of putting all the focus on Depp, who still manages to slather himself in makeup and prosthetics and affectation even as he returns to less Disney-fied fare. Nothing feels authentic (the less said about the accents the better), and Cooper doesn’t pony up nearly enough style to make up for the lack of substance. It ends up looking especially poor with the release of Spotlight, a true crime story that does its setting and its tale right.
It is never a good sign when the first scene of your film is unquestionably the best. There’s nowhere to go but down. And The Last Five Years goes down quickly. After a sensationally melancholic and heartfelt opening number from Anna Kendrick, the film immediately hits a snag when it introduces her charisma-less partner Jeremy Jordan (his apparent stage presence aggressively does not translate itself to the screen). The conceit is a clever one, with Kendrick’s side of the relationship told from end to beginning and Jordan’s from beginning to end. On stage the two actors never come together outside of a duet in the middle of the production, but on screen they still share every scene, but with only one singing at a time. Not only does that make the gimmick feel like just that, a gimmick, but it also means Jordan is on screen for most of the film. Kendrick cannot carry the dead weight of her costar, a concept that doesn’t translate from the stage and some unimpressive songs by herself, and it doesn’t take long for the whole enterprise to crush her.
6. The Voices
Ryan Reynolds seems like a likable enough guy (he’s pretty decent in Mississippi Grind), but it’s difficult to stay on his side as he continues to take projects like this. Playing an office worker who also happens to be a serial killer with multiple personalities that are manifest in the form of his dog and cat talking to him whenever he’s alone, Reynolds does fine, but the material simply isn’t up to snuff. The scripting of the dog and cat are especially poor, dreadfully poor to the point that after the first scene you never want to see them open their fake psychosis projecting mouths again. It’s a barrier of entry that cannot be overcome. There are some good ideas here (the director also made the excellent Persepolis), but not nearly enough to contradict the bad taste left by the film’s staggeringly poor dialogue. A shame.
Just two years ago, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was an honorable mention for my favorite films of the year. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Drab, slow-moving and focused on all the wrong things, the final installment of the Hunger Games saga manages to undo all of the goodwill it had built up, full of payoffs that do not pay off and too many contrivances to sustain itself. So much of the emotional heavy lifting depends on newly introduced characters (many from last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire) without the requisite resonance or screen time to make us care. It is disappointing that the first truly terrible entry of this is the last one (though, really, Catching Fire was the only truly good installment, but it was so good it almost has become a detriment in hindsight); it leaves perhaps an undue taste in the mouth.
To say David Cross’ directorial debut is mean spirited is perhaps the most comical of understatements. Designed as a ruthless satire of everything from Youtube celebrity to viral videos to America Idol/The Voice culture, a microcosm of a world in which website hits directly correlate with self-worth (hence the film’s title). Cross seems content with throwing as many ideas as he can think up against the wall, and while he has managed to amass a pretty impressive cast of legitimately funny people (Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Michael Cera, Jason Ritter, Amy Sedaris, etc), nothing ever seems to stick. Far too sprawling with too many characters and subplots, Hits is a film that never seems capable of getting out of its own way. It’s a problem when the biting satire of your comedy is so polemical that it forgets to actually be funny.
David O. Russell has been on a slow downward trajectory since his reinvention into Hollywood prestige hit maker with 2010’s The Fighter, and Joy certainly must represent his nadir. Cobbled together with the same actors he’s been working with nonstop since Silver Linings Playbook, this is a film that might be best understood as a bunch of famous people recording rehearsals of a first draft and just deciding to release it as a movie. Yes, there are names involved, and yes, those names will get at least some measure of the population into the theater (though at about one third the rate that they showed up for American Hustle it seems), but next to nothing about Joy makes it worthwhile, let alone memorable. The family dynamic that was so vital in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook is perhaps more central here than it’s ever been, but not nearly as engaging, instead offering a cacophonous clash of half-baked personality archetypes that never cross over into actual humanity. This is a punishingly loud film, one filled with screaming matches and chaos and nothing to back it up. This is the cinematic equivalent of a hollow chocolate easter bunny; it collapses in on itself the second you put some teeth to it.
2. Jupiter Ascending
If Eddie Redmayne receives a Best Actor nomination for The Danish Girl with his “performance” in Jupiter Ascending sandwiched between two Academy recognized roles, it will perhaps be amongst the most baffling cases of cognitive dissonance in some time (almost as baffling, it seems, as Tom McCarthy receiving a Best Director nomination the year he released The Cobbler, but that is for another time). Redmayne is so indescribably bad in this tepid, bloated sci fi epic that burns with the stench of thousands of tire fires that it almost has to be seen to be believed. Almost. I would not, however, wish such a turgid, exposition-laden absurd space opera on the worst of my enemies. Nothing makes sense. No one is good (Redmayne is just the most visibly bad; Mila Kunis is in Oz: The Great and Powerful form, which is not a good thing). Sure, it’s pretty sometimes, but who cares? You want something pretty that’s actually good? Watch Mad Max or Star Wars. Weep for everyone involved in this mess. Then run as far as you can as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
No film released in 2015 enraged me quite as much as Pitch Perfect 2 . I enjoyed its predecessor, but if this film is any indication, it is clear that every remotely interesting aspect of the concept was exhausted by the Barton Bellas’ first tour of duty. The film decides to retread every joke and script beat from the first time, only in a much bigger and more weirdly racist way. It’s possible I might have laughed once, probably at Keegan Michael Key, who is basically the only person in the movie who seems to have any life, but there’s no way to corroborate that as I have done everything I can to sear this from my memory. Offensive (almost deliriously so, and not in a fun way), redundant, overlong and unfunny, this is a film that does everything it can to make sure you couldn’t possibly be interested. The story is the same, the performances are fine, technically, but worse compositions. The script systematically drives every concept into the ground through repetition, inexplicably giving bigger roles to John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (perhaps because Banks directed?) who proceed to annoy from the first scene to the last, and Hailee Steinfeld appears to have undone much of the good will from True Grit five years ago. There is simply nothing to enjoy about this dreadful cash grab of a sequel.
Special Consideration - Lava
I wonder if people would have paid more attention to the utter dreck that is Lava, the Pixar short that played in front of Inside Out, if that excellent film hadn’t successfully cleansed the palette of its horrors. If we were in need of an incontrovertible choice for the worst product Pixar has ever delivered that isn’t Cars 2 (and let’s be clear, Lava gives Cars 2 a serious run for its money), it’s this sincerely, deeply creepy seven minute nightmare of a short. Something about the way the elderly, portly old male volcano protagonist who leers over a much younger, slender female volcano (they don’t even try to hide the female form, despite the other volcano looking otherwise like, you know, an actual real life volcano outside of his craggy eyes and mouth. She has a neck for crying out loud. A mountain. With a neck.) never sits right, and the fact that the only respite from it all is that is a sickly saccharine song whose only claim to fame is an awful pun that wrecks the meter of the chorus doesn’t help matters. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if this had run in front of the extreme disappointment that was The Good Dinosaur instead of Inside Out. Riots, probably, but I’m relatively sure I’m overthinking the consequences a tad. Or not. Definitely riots. This is the sort of thing the term “shudder to think” exists for.
The night is always darkest before the dawn (which technically isn’t true, but hey, idioms). We travel through the depths in order to foment and cultivate more appreciation for the heights. Tune in for said heights tomorrow, as I travel through my top twenty of 2015.