2016 Year in Film: The Bottom Ten
I’m pretty lucky, in that the upside to not having a regular paying gig as a critic means I can leverage some amount of control over the films I watch from year to year. Some day that could change, and an editor could command me to review the likes of 50 Shades of Black or Norm of the North or whatever other terrible film is released in January or February (just posted to this very website: a review of The Bye Bye Man!) and I would gladly do so as I gladly cash the proverbial check for doing so. This preamble is to say that I am aware there are movies that were released in 2016 that are worse than some of the movies on my list. I did not see them, and can only comment on what I did see.
Additionally, one of the worst films I saw in 2016, Batman: The Killing Joke only got a marginal theatrical release (event style over a few nights at the end of July), and since it didn’t receive a run in theaters that would make it eligible for awards consideration, I did not include it. Rest assured, it sucks. Hard. I even wrote (at length) about how hard it sucks. You can find that here.
So with all of that out of the way, here are the ten worst 2016 theatrical releases I had to endure last year.
10. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (directed by Tim Burton)
So technically, I guess, there are two X-Men movies in my bottom ten this year (whoops, spoilers). Tim Burton’s adaptation of the young adult series feels inert pretty much from the opening credits, bolstered by a positively dreadful lead performance from Asa Butterfield (who’s put in some pretty roundly poor turns since hitting it big with Hugo). This is the same sort of Burton film we’ve been seeing for years now, a big budget studio picture with that same sort of weird color saturation he always uses. It’s weird that Johnny Depp is nowhere to be found, replaced in his standard “weird role model” role by Eva Green (a step up, to be sure, even if it doesn’t amount to much here), who is the charge of a bunch of kids with strange, random and utterly inconsequential mutations that make them “peculiars” set against a World War 2 backdrop that sets up the equivalency between their peril and the holocaust (which we’ve seen before. In X-Men films). This brings absolutely nothing new to the table, content to be another sort of boring, uninspired Burton film that continues to erode the good feeling he used to engender back in the 80’s and 90’s. There are some decent monster designs and a couple of good ideas hidden below the surface, but it’s so opaque and the positivity is so tarnished that you can’t see the shine once you get there. What a waste.
9. Cafe Society (directed by Woody Allen)
I think I’m over Woody Allen. Late career Woody Allen, at the very least. Cafe Society marks yet another in a long line of disappointing efforts from the man (yes, I’m one of those weird people who really didn’t care for Blue Jasmine), yet another banal look at a world that only exists in Allen’s mind and doesn’t really have enough interest to make me care. In this case, he turns to 1930’s Hollywood for his playground, where a neurotic and antisocial man finds himself having to choose between Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively while deciding he’s not that interested in LA anymore so he can return to Brooklyn and become a mainstay in the elite nightclub scene. It’s not a stretch to say it’s a stretch, and while idealizing is an important tool in the box of movies, it rarely feels less satisfying than when Allen is doing the idealizing these days. It never really finds its footing, trying to say a lot but usually saying very little, and while Stewart remains the sort of actress who makes any film she’s in worth seeing at least on some baseline level (and I have a lot of respect for Blake Lively as well. And Corey Stoll. And Steve Carell, though he’s not particularly illuminating here). It’s drenched in that LA sun in Hollywood and everything looks beautiful and everyone looks beautiful and I just don’t care.
8. Hacksaw Ridge (directed by Mel Gibson)
I should preface this by saying Hacksaw Ridge is a competently made film. I can understand, or at least partially understand, why some people like it. And my dislike for the film has nothing to do with Mel Gibson or his personal demons (I still like Polanski films, after all). But Mel’s utter obsession with extreme violence, however accurate or true to war it may be, is so tiring and grating, so steeped in Christian martyrdom that I just can’t find any interest in it. The story of a pacifist who joins the war effort but refuses to wield a gun or kill is an interesting concept, but it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny (his moral code, it seems, is a staggeringly personal one, as he has no problem whatsoever with everyone else around him killing seemingly indiscriminately), and the overdose of gore (this has to be the most ceaselessly violent film of the year) has clear diminishing returns. Gibson is clearly making a point in contrasting this man’s principled bravery in the face of the round the clock atrocities of war he witnesses, but in practice he pushes it too far, too direct with his symbolism for it to be palatable. It’s just a slog.
7. The Man Who Knew Infinity (directed by Matt Brown)
If I were the sort to fall asleep at movies, it would be a minor miracle to make it all the way through The Man Who Knew Infinity with full control of my faculties. This is exactly the sort of biopic that makes the genre the sort of thing Pablo Larrain strives to overcome. Utterly predictable and stultifying, the film is another entry in my “Dev Patel movies he’s fine in I guess but I still don’t like them” book that seems to be growing with regularity by the year (he’s much better in Lion, which is like this film on the predictability scale but at least has a cracking first half -- i.e. the half he’s not in). Honestly, it’s tough to write about why it’s so bad because it’s tough to care enough about it to summon the brain power necessary to form words into sentences when all we really should do is move on with our lives and forget this movie was ever made in the first place.
6. Deadpool (directed by Tim Miller)
I can only imagine that the WGA, who perplexingly nominated the screenplay of Deadpool for Best Adapted Screenplay for their 2016 awards, saw the moment in the opening credits where the writers are referred to as “The Real Heroes Here” and decided to nominate it right then, not paying attention to the rest of the film. And, to be fair, the opening credits are the only part of the film that could be considered even remotely clever. The rest is a dizzyingly stupid film, covering over its boilerplate superhero origin story with referential “humor,” and claiming it as some great transgressive commentary on the state of superhero films when all it really is is the same superhero film we’ve seen dozens of times before. The claim that it’s doing something new while so obstinately refusing to do anything new is actively insulting, and the humor, which borrows heavily from the Family Guy school of “throw a bunch of references and dick jokes at a wall and see which ones stick” would be generous to even be described as humor in the first place. This is an excellent case of the snake eating its own tail, which is deeply frustrating, as if Deadpool has actually managed to undercut and subvert superhero conventions, it might have actually been something special. Instead, by just doing the same thing everyone else did and thinking itself novel by commenting on it, Deadpool simply succeeded in making me feel dumber for having endured it.
5. X-Men: Apocalypse (directed by Bryan Singer)
I wonder sometimes what this younger X-Men reboot/rebrand would have been like if Jennifer Lawrence hadn’t been cast as Mystique in X-Men: First Class back in 2011. It was a year after her first Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone and a year before Silver Linings Playbook won her the Oscar and The Hunger Games made her a star. But Fox had her under contract for three movies, so suddenly, Mystique had to be a major player in whatever X-Men movies they could get her in. It’s not really her fault that the Mystique aspects of X-Men: Days of Future Past completely derailed the film, but the desire for Fox to put her front and center even when the film didn’t seem to want or require it but they had Jennifer Lawrence dammit and they were going to put her on screen as much as possible, has been depressingly damaging. Lawrence isn’t necessarily as detrimental to Apocalypse as she was to Days of Future Past, but Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg still pull the focus of the plot unnaturally in Mystique’s direction. In this case, though, there’s so much more that’s gone horribly, horribly wrong, and I weep at how many Ex Machinas and A Most Violent Years weren’t made while Oscar Isaac was forced to do whatever it was he was doing during this film. During the climactic bore-a-thon of a battle between the X-Men and Apocalypse, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto (who had been under the sway of the villain as one of his four lieutenants of the apocalypse for most of the film), telekinetically throws two giant pieces of rebar into a massive X in front of his former master to signify his return to the good.
Subtlety, it seems, is dead.
4. Warcraft (directed by Duncan Jones)
The shame of Warcraft is how clearly it was a passion project for director Duncan Jones. The son of David Bowie who cut his teeth on low budget, high concept sci-fi films like Moon and Source Code not only got the chance to play around with some studio money, he got to do it adapting a game and a universe he loves to the big screen. And maybe Warcraft could have fared better if it hadn’t missed the zeitgeist so profoundly (there was a time World of Warcraft had 12 million plus subscribers and was at the forefront of pop culture. And that time was over six years ago. Today it’s at about 40% of that number) or looked like anything more than another sword and sorcery film that lives in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Warcraft has a truly painful script, a mix of the sort of proper name overload that’s referred to as “word building” but really just serves to confuse anyone who hasn’t played the games or read a whole bunch of wiki articles about orcs and humans and dark portals and the like. The human characters are stultifyingly boring, so of course the film spends the balance on them even as the orcs are proven to be ever so slightly more interesting, but the script is so terrible that they just have no chance to make good. There’s enough wasteful references to the games that die hard fans will get a kick out of it, but that kick fades and degrades when the rest of the film gives no reason to care.
3. The Girl on the Train (directed by Tate Taylor)
I’m impressed with how lazy The Girl on the Train feels when you’re watching it. Tate Taylor (the director of The Help) seems like he started and ended his pre-production planning with comparing the narrative of the original book to Gone Girl, and just deciding to make his film into a carbon copy of David Fincher’s pulpy drama and not bothering to put any sort of effort into making his film original or engaging in any way. From the similarly fractured narrative to the potentially unreliable narrator to the steely blue hues and Danny Elfman doing his best Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross impression, The Girl on the Train feels like a parody film that forgot to be funny. It wastes the talents of the likes of Emily Blunt, Allison Janney, Edgar Ramirez and more (though Blunt may want to reconsider how to act like a drunk person), and never even comes close to providing anything to hook its audience into its thorny and overly complex plotting. It is, put simply, a train wreck.
2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zack Snyder)
Zack Snyder is a bad filmmaker. We have plenty of evidence to this fact. And yet, DC and Warner Bros. have doubled down hard on Zack Snyder, Savior of the DC Cinematic Universe by handing him the keys to the castle and giving him full control over not only Superman (after so many people despised Man of Steel) but Batman and Wonder Woman as well. It’s clear mere seconds into Dawn of Justice that Snyder isn’t even trying to learn his lesson or change his ways, and the film’s punishing two and a half hour run time (making the likes of longer films like Silence, The Wailing or Toni Erdmann feel like 80 minute romps) is peppered with the same slow motion action scenes, slow motion bullet-casing-falling-to-the-ground scenes, super macho dialogue and juvenile understanding of character motivation that has plagued the cinema world since his Dawn of the Dead remake back in 2004 (which, honestly, is probably his best film). And when you add in the studio pressure to make these DC films fall in line with the Marvel method of moviemaking, seeding in upcoming films about The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg in the most perfunctory, snooze-worthy ways, there’s really just nothing to latch onto here that has any cinematic worth. Even Jesse Eisenberg, clearly doing what he can to spice up the joint by turning Lex Luthor into a manic loon of a sociopath, grows tiring when it becomes clear the script isn’t going to provide any sort of coherent plan for him to enact to get these two titans of superhero history to start punching each other. But punch they do because punch they must, and it’s about as interesting as doing your taxes by hand with an abacus. So maybe some accountants would get a kick out of Batman v Superman. Someone has to, I guess.
1. Suicide Squad (directed by David Ayer)
I didn’t see Suicide Squad until the end of the year, so I had a lot of time to prepare myself for what was to come. The likelihood that I would take the time to see the film in the theater quickly approached zero after enduring the mess that was Batman v Superman, as well as being mentally exhausted by seeing a dozen trailers and TV spots that wanted to make it really goddamned clear that these “heroes” are actually (get this, folks) the bad guys. I’m not sure how you could tell; they only say it pretty much every single chance they can get. And yet, considering all of that, I still managed to underestimate just how execrable this film is. Its troublesome production is well known, with Ayer’s original product a much darker experience (not too surprising considering his filmography contains the likes of Fury, End of Watch and Training Day) being heavily re-edited by the marketing people behind the colorful, pop music laden trailer that borrowed heavily from Guardians of the Galaxy (an exponentially better take on the rag tag bunch of misfits and losers makes good idea) and made Suicide Squad one of the more anticipated films of a summer that loved to disappoint us with garbage blockbuster after garbage blockbuster. It seems fitting, then, that Suicide Squad is the undisputed king of 2016 garbage blockbusters. Coming from the trailer, you expect the heavy-handed pop soundtrack (there’s so much pop music in this that it can feel like a jukebox musical), but its implementation makes Zack Snyder deciding to have two characters bone to a dirge-y Leonard Cohen song in Watchmen seem like a stroke of genius. This is a profoundly ugly movie, with a bunch of color vomited onto the screen with no elan in order to tidy up the original grim and gritty treatment, the result of panicked reshoots when everyone loved a trailer for a movie that did not exist in that form. But what’s really so baffling about Suicide Squad is its plotting and pacing, spending a good twenty to twenty-five minutes painstakingly introducing every member of the squad (except the ones that randomly show up later for no reason to no fanfare) via dossiers read by Viola Davis (poor, poor Viola Davis) only to have the film reintroduce them again with more flashbacks pretty much right after they’re done introducing them the first time (they even do it a third time for a few of the heavies). I could keep going here and talk about how I think the world has collectively been drugged into thinking Margot Robbie is actually good in this movie, but as much fun as it is to tear down such a tremendously shoddy, confused piece of marketed-to-hell-and-back awful muck, it doesn’t deserve the words I’m wasting on it.
Now, despite what one may think looking at a bottom ten list that features some of the most high profile releases of 2016, this was actually a super good year at the movies, and is racing neck and neck with 2007 and 2010 for my favorite movie year of the new millennium. Check back tomorrow for my top movies of the year to find out why.