2017 Year in Film: The Bottom Ten
As much as watching movies all the time can be great, you have to wade through plenty of dreck in order to find the best there is to offer from the medium. And while there was plenty of great stuff to be found in 2017, there was quite a bit of bad along the way, especially peppering the first half of the calendar. I haven't seen everything, so you won't find any King Arthur: Legend of the Swords or Transformers: The Last Knights here, but of the 100+ movies I saw this year, the following are the 10 at the bottom of the barrel.
(Dis-)Honorable Mention - I Love You, Daddy
It can’t make the list because it was never technically released in 2017. Still, Louis CK’s second directorial effort was screened at film festivals and for critics, and For Your Consideration screeners were sent out before his scandal broke, the premiere was cancelled and The Orchard pulled its release. As one of the critics who received a FYC screener for I Love You, Daddy, a sense of morbid curiosity made me watch it, and it is clear almost immediately that The Orchard made the right decision mothballing this one. If the cloud of scandal hanging over CK weren’t enough, he takes his chief inspiration from Woody Allen both in style and subject. The plot apes Manhattan, with CK’s 17 year old daughter falling for a much older professor/filmmaker with a sordid past of chasing underage girls. And it’s shot like Manhattan too, in black and white with a jazz/symphony soundtrack. And there’s all sorts of masturbation jokes. Basically, if you wanted to put together the one movie Louis CK definitely should not have released in 2017, it would be I Love You, Daddy. Oof.
10. Ghost in the Shell
It is entirely possible this live action adaptation of the beloved anime classic could have at least felt novel in the way it looked, but then Blade Runner 2049 came along and ate its visual lunch, leaving Ghost in the Shell with nothing to make it feel special. Much was made of the whitewash casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, but even racially sensitive casting couldn’t have done much to save this droning bore. It’s got some decent production design and set dressings, but the story is a complete mess and Johansson’s Black Widow action star pedigree doesn’t translate at all.
9. Rough Night
Best described as a female take on Very Bad Things, Rough Night doesn’t manage to do enough with the premise to make things even remotely interesting. The cast seems like it could have promise, filled with the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer and Zoe Kravitz (as well as some truly out there cameo performances from Ty Burrell and Demi Moore). It’s designed to be a raunchy dark comedy where a night goes off the rails after the group, at a bachelorette weekend in Miami, accidentally kill a male stripper in a freak accident. But the stripper isn’t actually a stripper, and a whole manner of events continue to push things into more and more ridiculous directions. My biggest problem with Rough Night, which is generally competent at best, is Kate McKinnon, who plays Johansson’s Aussie friend from her semester at sea, and the performance just doesn’t work at all. Her accent is too mannered, and she ends up more of an off-putting presence than the splintering agent that generates tension and jealousy among her US-based friends. Rough Night could have been something, but it fails to coalesce into anything satisfying.
8. Justice League
You know, the fact that this is number 8 on the list is actually a bit of a triumph for Zack Snyder-related DC movies. Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice rank among my least favorite superhero movies of all time (and they don’t exactly improve that ranking when taking all movies into account), so for Justice League to only be a more conventional flavor of bad is a marked improvement. There’s still way too much going on here, with the need to introduce three new heroes, one new villain and the fallout from Superman’s death at the end of Batman V Superman, making things feel remarkably rushed. It’s a godsend that it’s under two hours for sanity purposes, but things definitely could have been improved by taking the Marvel method to heart and introducing the likes of Cyborg, Flash and Aquaman in previous films so this one didn’t have to do the legwork. The action is still uninspired and bogged down by Snyder’s fanatical devotion to slow motion, and the color palette remains drab. Zack Snyder movies are the Axe body spray of movies, and though the involvement of Joss Whedon cuts that back a bit, Justice League is still much more a mess than not.
I cannot for the life of me understand what Alexander Payne was thinking when he put together Downsizing. The most high concept film of his career, Payne establishes Downsizing with an intriguing science fiction conceit, that everyday people could reduce their environmental footprint and hugely increase their wealth by shrinking down to a size of approximately five inches and living in cookie cutter suburb installations. There are all sorts of satirical opportunities here, and Payne plays with some of them in the first thirty minutes or so, but chooses instead to make the film into a meandering treatise on all sorts of disparate ideas that never settle on anything worthwhile. It’s a completely maddening cinematic experience, because you can see what works. You can see Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier doing interesting things, but Payne only cares about Matt Damon, and Matt Damon is the most boring part of the whole enterprise. I go back and forth on Payne as a director, but I have no doubts that Downsizing is the worst film of his career.
6. The Circle
I wrote about The Circle yesterday as a massive disappointment, but it’s honestly quite impressive just how much of a mess the script of this film is. Clearly the movie is incredibly impressed with itself and its opinions about a modern technological society defined by social media, but the way it decides to make this point is so outrageously boneheaded and obvious that you have to wonder if James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers had actually used a computer before. The Steve Jobs pastiche played by Hanks is entirely perfunctory, and Emma Watson often doesn’t feel like a real person. There are weird inconsistencies and leaps of logic everywhere, and the final resolution, designed to be a mix of a defiant success and a chilling look at the future, just sort of happens. That’s the best way to describe The Circle, really. And that’s not a good thing.
5. The Dinner
Wasting a Rebecca Hall performance should be a felony, and The Dinner has to be condemned for doing just that. It’s got an undeniably impressive cast (Hall, Steve Coogan, Laura Linney and Richard Gere), but the story it tells with them could not be less interesting. The drama of seeing two brothers war with words over a tense dinner to try and figure out how to handle the fallout of their sons committing a heinous crime should be far more engaging than it is, but that tension never actually materializes. The scenes with the two sons lack any sort of urgency or surprise, and it completely undercuts everything that the film is trying to accomplish. In practice, The Dinner is something akin to Roman Polanski’s failed Carnage, and the experience of watching these adults bicker over something you can’t care about makes it all feel like the film is just marking time waiting for the credits to save us all.
4. Beauty and the Beast
Okay, this is just getting depressing now. Disney, the ruler of all moviedom (and soon to be the owner of all moviedom at the rate they’re going), continues to cannibalize its animated legacy for a quick buck, and while movies like Maleficent, Cinderella and The Jungle Book were middling to fair at best, their adaptation of one of the most beloved modern animated Disney classics is a trash fire of epic proportions. Almost nauseatingly busy and chaotic, the flesh and blood take on the tale as old as time wears out its welcome before it even gets past the opening credits. So much of it is cribbed directly from the 1991 film that it completely fails to give itself a reason to exist beyond the desire to be longer (they had to make sure they added a few terrible new songs for Oscar consideration...and forty additional minutes). Emma Watson makes for a terrible Belle, relying on the same officious Britishness of all of her roles that totally doesn’t fit with the vibe. The production design is overly garish and the choreography mind-numbing. It’s impressive, really, as they managed to fail to improve on literally anything from the first film. But it made $1.2 billion worldwide, so these abominations aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Sigh.
3. Despicable Me 3
This might be unfair. Despicable Me 3 is the first of the Despicable Me series I’ve ever seen (and, indeed, the first Illumination Entertainment film I’ve seen), so perhaps a lack of context could have something to do with it, but I was profoundly unimpressed with the experience. I’ve picked up plenty about the series through pop culture osmosis, but that didn’t prepare me for how mirthless and unmoving the film was. Gru’s a fine enough character, I guess, but the villain (an 80s obsessive voiced by Trey Parker) is far more annoying than sinister, but that’s the sort of description that can be applied to the film as a whole. It seems that regardless of the fact that I hadn’t seen any previous Despicable Me movies, Despicable Me 3 is the consensus worst of the bunch, but it didn’t exactly have me running to find out what I missed. It’s a low effort, barely comedic slog.
2. The Mummy
This will be forever known as the film that struck down Universal for its hubris. The Mummy opens with a graphic for The Dark Universe, their attempt to cash in on that Marvel coin by taking all of the established Universal movie monsters from the 1930s and stitching them together. The original announcement included the likes of Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem, and The Mummy was supposed to be the beginning of it all (no matter that Dracula Untold was supposed to do this three years ago and failed). In a stunning example of putting the cart before the horse, no one bothered to make sure The Mummy was any good, and dear lord it is not good. An incredibly strange hodgepodge of tones that even Cruise can’t save with his action star charm, The Mummy careens between humor and horror, spending an interminable amount of time setting up all sorts of ideas and concepts that aren’t interesting and aren’t designed to be paid off until another movie. It can’t even rely on some of the impressive setting it took advantage of in the first half, spending the majority of the second half confined to a generic lab setting with Sofia Boutella tressed up like a bondage model. The Mummy is so bad, the main architects of The Dark Universe have all but abandoned the project just as it began. All of it was for nothing.
1. The Bye Bye Man
It’s always a good sign when the first movie you see in a given year ends up being the worst movie you see in that year, but considering the dumping ground that is January at the movies, it probably happens more than you might expect. The Bye Bye Man suffers from an astonishing lack of effort and interest, a depressing melange of horror movie cliches molded together into a boring cast that doesn’t come close to eliciting fear, or even a response at all, really. The effects are poor, and although the opening sequence hints at something interesting, the script is entirely inept at following it up. There are plenty of bad movies in this world, but the greatest sin of any artistic medium is to feel like your time was wasted. The Bye Bye Man has no redeeming qualities in any way. It’s just a terrible, terrible bore.
And there we are. The exorcism is complete. Tomorrow, we flip to the opposite side of the coin and look at the best 2017 had to offer. Come back for the twenty best films of 2017.