Not every movie release is a good one. I usually try to avoid these (the only Tyler Perry movie I’ve seen is Gone Girl) and am generally successful in doing so. However, I am not always successful, and when you see as many movies a year as I do, the odds are not in your favor to get out of the year unscathed. Below are the worst of the movies that scathed me in 2014. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the clear worst films of the year (you will see Left Behind, no God's Not Dead, no I, Frankenstein, no Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas), but it is a comprehensive list of the worst I've seen. Depressingly, the list features quite a few actors I like quite a bit, proving once again that even the best actors cannot save a doomed project.
10. White Bird in a Blizzard
It’s tough to write about a bad film when there isn’t a specific weakness to point to. Such is the case with White Bird in a Blizzard, yet another entry in the increasingly long line of movies that aren’t good enough for Shailene Woodley yet she stars in them anyway. It’s innocuous for most of its first half, a story about a girl (Woodley) whose mother disappeared when she was 17 (the mother is played by Eva Green, making the scenes between them awkward by virtue of the fact that she’s way too young to be the mother of an adult Woodley). The flashback structure is decent, but the central mystery unravels with a deeply unsatisfying and pat thud in the third act. The last twenty minutes of this thing falls of a relatively precipitous and preposterous cliff, making the relative banality of its early movement look even worse in hindsight.
I wrote an article earlier this year around the release of Gone Girl that had to do with the cult of Fight Club, the legion of Fincher fans who probably like that movie just a bit too much for it to be healthy. Jon S. Baird, the writer/director of Filth seems to fall directly into that mold, and this film feels like the copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of that Fincher film, with all the blurriness and degradation it would entail. James McAvoy is a wonderfully talented actor, and he does his best to embody the sort of anarchic energy needed for a project like this, but it’s all just hollow artifice, like the film equivalent of one of those suburban malls where the Spencer Gifts and the Hot Topic are right next to each other.
Tusk should arguably be the final nail in the coffin for Kevin Smith, filmmaker, who hasn’t managed to do anything relevant to or for the form for a good fifteen years now. This vanity project feels like the death knell, a quarter-baked idea birthed by some aimless riffing on his podcast about the kidnapping of a man that results in him being surgically altered into a walrus-man. Sort of an indie-comedy version of The Human Centipede, Tusk offers just as little to the film form, especially when it abruptly switches gears halfway through to introduce a new character through an interminable extended monologue. Theoretically, Smith deserves plaudits for attempting to branch out to new genres with projects like Tusk or Red State, but he can only cash in on those plaudits if the resulting movies are actually good, which they are not. Noble failures are not a renewable resource, and after some time the nobility starts to erode, and all you’re left with is failure.
7. Beneath the Harvest Sky
This story about two kids in Maine trying to escape their home town and move to Boston for various reasons feels like a rejected Sundance movie from the first frame, and never shakes that specter. You can only watch so many of these boring, uninspired coming-of-age movies before one of them turns the corner into a direct insult of your cinematic sensibilities, and Beneath the Harvest Sky has managed to win that ignominious prize. Never once engaging on any level, it just sits there with its misplaced attempts at resonance and woeful faux-villains like Aidan Gillen’s undersketched outlaw of a father. The filmmakers try to inject some excitement into the proceedings with a drug smuggling subplot, but nothing ever coalesces into anything the least bit satisfying. This is a film that never justifies its existence or gives even a hint that it should have been made.
It’s depressing that a film from the director of Once can feel so shockingly out of touch as Begin Again does. Its story, about Mark Ruffalo’s disgraced record executive discovering Keira Knightly at an open mic night in a bar and setting about cutting an album with her on the streets of New York City, feels like it was written long before the digital revolution hit the music industry, long before Napster, even, and the screenplay was never updated. The performances are fine (especially Adam Levine, fully taking advantage of his public persona), and the songs are decent, but the story feels so staged and fake and weirdly navel-gazing about ideas and concepts that aren’t remotely relevant to today’s world. As Knightly's character chooses to release her album online through a Bandcamp-style pay whatever you want model, the people around her are shocked (shocked!) at her ingenuity and moxie, despite the fact that Radiohead did this with In Rainbows seven years ago and it's almost standard practice now. It’s a new release that feels lethally dated out of the gates, which infects the efficacy of the central relationships of the characters. Humorously enough, if this had been released in 2006 and Once released today, Begin Again would be better for it and Once would still be just as resonant. But that didn’t happen, and this showed up dead on arrival.
5. Magic in the Moonlight
Magic in the Moonlight is a film that is immediately forgotten once the credits roll, a paper-thin trifle that amounts to nothing other than feeling queasy about Colin Firth and Emma Stone wooing each other despite their 28 year age difference. There is a central mystery to Magic in the Moonlight, one that puts Firth and Stone on their collision course toward love, and it’s handled with no feeling and little logic, forcing its characters to consistently betray themselves for no other reason than to keep the plot moving in the direction it needs to in order to limp to its inert finale. It’s the worst sort of filmmaking, devoid of point or purpose, and seems like an excuse for Woody Allen to keep his movie a year streak going without having a good idea in the first place. It's a shame, too, because Emma Stone would have been the perfect sort of actress for Woody back when he cared.
4. The Fault in Our Stars
I was never supposed to have cared about The Fault in Our Stars, but good reviews, Shailene Woodley and the writers of (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now pushed me in the direction of seeing it in the theater. There are some movies I don’t like that I can understand others do, as they just exist on another wavelength from my sensibilities as a moviegoer. This is not one of those movies. Promised as the antidote for the modern teen romance, The Fault in Our Stars is, in practice, every cliched Nicholas Sparks movie ever made. Sure, it’s got a better cast and its beginning is relatively strong, but it quickly and spectacularly devolves into the same sort of manipulative, schmaltzy pap we’ve seen dozens of times before. Woodley is a great young actress, confident and assured in her performances, but she’s also been the star of two of the worst films of the year (and I haven’t even seen Divergent) and is in dire need of better choices. She does all she can, but the fish rots from the head, and by the time the single worst scene of 2014 graces the screen about two-thirds of the way in, there’s nothing left to say. It’s a lost cause.
One of the major complaints lobbied against last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street revolved around belief that it glorified the amorality of Jordan Belfort, becoming less of a cautionary tale and more of a hagiography. You can debate whether that’s actually true (I personally don’t believe it), but Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler is a much better example of this criticism in action than Scorsese's indulgent epic. Mark Wahlberg’s character is a cad for 100% of the run time, thoroughly disengaged and unengaging, barely registering on the emotional scale, and constantly making decisions so illogical that there’s no reason to put any faith behind him. But The Gambler, by its end, shows little to no evidence of being a cautionary tale, as Wahlberg manages to extricate himself from his gambling debts via a series of reprehensible decisions, and finds no punishment whatsoever. Attempts to make Wahlberg likable through long-form rambling speeches about Camus and Shakespeare and genius do nothing of the sort. Brie Larson is comically wasted as a purported writing prodigy (a concept brought up early in the film, never proven beyond hollow words and entirely forgotten essentially immediately) turned nondescript blonde love interest. This has to be the worst mainstream screenplay of the year, a gross miscalculation of concept and tone from an Oscar-winning screenwriter (not that that means everything; Akiva Goldsman’s got one of those), and its transgressions reverberate through every frame. I'm not usually the sort of guy to have to combat moral revulsion from a film, but it turns out I don't take to it very well.
As a point of clarification, The Giver is one of those books that somehow avoided my gaze when I was reading vociferously, so I came into this with no particular baggage of any note. That means it’s possible that my enjoyment of the first act could have been tempered by knowledge from the book (for better or worse), but the raging grease fire that is this film’s latter half wouldn’t have impressed regardless of prior knowledge. The cliff off which The Giver falls is precipitous, settling into the most maddening melange of YA movie greatest hits, shoehorning in a love story with a young lady it’s impossible to care about (not her fault when the whole point of the world is that no one expresses emotions) and pushing everything toward an obnoxiously unnecessary high octane conclusion. The disappointment of The Giver is as much about a squandered opportunity as it is about a bad movie. There are good ideas here, good ideas we aren’t going to get a chance to see given justice and done well. That’s the real tragedy.
1. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
No one is going to deny Frank Miller’s influence on the comic book world, but as we get further from his heyday in the 80’s and 90’s, it’s tough not to feel a little queasy about the way he went about writing stories. This sequel to 2005’s Sin City is a cogent example, a continuation no one really cared about (or else it wouldn’t have taken nine years to see the light of day) culled from stories that weren’t good enough to be included in the first anthology with a visual style that suffers from diminishing returns the second time around. Everything about this second Sin City feature feels worse than the first, with its more unified plot working to its detriment and its visuals feeling even more fake (and not in a good, comic book-y way). It lays across the screen like a dead fish, ever rotting until it mercifully ends after 100 minutes. The critical response and box office receipts of this film all but guarantee we’ll never see another Sin City film. It’s a shame they couldn’t have made that decision before this one was made.
Okay, now that’s gladly over with. Tomorrow, we finish out the week by going from the bottom to the top with the 15 best films of 2014.