For moviegoers, the post-Christmas, pre-St. Patrick’s Day period is a fallow time, where populist crap and tardy prestige movies either go to die ignoble deaths or fetch three Mack trucks full of cash. What better moment, we thought, to meditate on the worst flicks ever committed to celluloid? Below, we skewer and roast the overpraised, the embarrassing, and the downright abominable from the 1970s up to the present decade. It’s a grab-bag of cultural sacred cows and utter skullduggery: movies that never should’ve been made, movies that no one should ever have to watch, movies so opportunistically terrible that everyone should watch them at least twice; the end of 2012 was our cut-off, so that the ripest horrors remained fresh in memory. Some of your favorite date movies are probably represented here. You mad? Raymond Cummings
The following three flicks topped the poll, receiving two votes each.
The Big Chill [Director: Michael Shamberg, 1983] What bugs me most about The Big Chill? It’s tough to single out one particular grievance, since you could cherry-pick the entire movie and list at least 50. Glenn Close gives one of her most oleaginous performances as an earth mama, and Kevin Kline isn’t far behind. That the film became synonymous with my generation, the Boomers, for a few years was grating as well, since most of the characters are so uncool, save Jeff Goldblum. One time, in ’85, I was playing croquet in a Baltimore park, when a bunch of drunk teenagers drove by and yelled out, “Big Chill, motherfuckers!” That the film spawned the odious (and now forgotten) TV show thirtysomething is another strike against it; also, it’s essentially a big-budget re-write of John Sayles’ far superior Return of the Secaucus 7.
What I hated most was the well-worn soundtrack: obvious hits from the 1960s, like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” And here’s the clincher: after the movie came out, so many of my peers (even friends!) discovered that Motown hits were a-hoppin’! Jesus Christ, I had no respect—still don’t—for people my age who didn’t listen to Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye when their singles lit up AM radio. Russ Smith
E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial [Director: Stephen Spielberg, 1982] My problem isn’t just with E.T., it’s with Steven Spielberg generally. Even my adolescent hero Dawson Leery, a Spielberg super fan, couldn’t sell me on the director. He created the modern blockbuster? Well then, screw you very much, Spielberg. Why would anyone applaud him for that? We have to deal with the Transformers and Terminator franchises because of this guy. And honestly, did anyone actually enjoy Lincoln? I would rather revisit my 11th grade U.S. history textbook than sit through that two-and-a-half hour snooze fest again. And then there’s E.T.: the film that everybody loves. The uplifting tale of boy meets alien. “The movie’s all heart,” everyone says. “It’s impossible to hate.” No, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. Do people really love E.T., or do they merely like it because it’s an inoffensive film that has “a good message for the kids”? Trying to make a movie that no one will hate will just leave you with a milquetoast picture. Booker Smith
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace [Director: George Lucas, 1999] Jar-Jar Binks is to the Star Wars prequels what Sofia Coppola was to Godfather III: a wart on top of a cancer. Yes, he's a botch, but he isn't the worst thing about Phantom Menace (or Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith). The worst thing about the prequels is that you see people suffer. When the actors give their lines, it's like they'll get a shock if their mouths move the wrong way. They drone out their lines, scared to notice each other, hoping no punishment befalls them. They're trapped, and so are we.
The second-worst thing: the CGI. Phantom and the others are movies that want to see themselves for you. The overkill is horrific, anti-human. You're there to hand over your eyeballs, and they get manhandled by the dullest and busiest patterns since Victorian wallpaper. Patterns that masquerade as a lived environment but look like nowhere, the same way that a mannequin doesn't look like a person no matter how many details are forced into its features. Because the texture is wrong: repellently blank in the case of the mannequin, infested in the case of prequel CGI. No inch of vision is free, and nowhere can the eye rest and say to itself “That spot there, that looks all right.”
Because they're making pretend in front of dumbass substitutes for a plausible reality, the actors seem even sillier. The result is a very expensive version of the cardboard effect created by sets from the Republic serials. Lucas is to blame for all this, because he made Phantom and the next two movies exactly as he wanted. Vanity is a terrible thing, especially when united to dullness. God knows how he ever made the first one, back in 1977; that movie was fun. C.T. May
The following flicks received a single vote each, but suck just as forcefully.
Alien [Director: Ridley Scott, 1979] My friend Elie and I had been meaning to watch Alien for months. We wanted a serious horror movie, no cheap scares or camp, and Alien was supposed to deliver. Meant to be this slow-burning, sci-fi horror flick that stays with you for weeks, popping up from the back of your head whenever you turn off the lights to go to sleep. I didn’t want to be scared; I wanted to be haunted. But when we finally sat down to watch Alien, at midnight on a Thursday, I felt nothing. This movie isn’t slow-burning; it’s boring. I was nervous when it ended. How could I not like Alien? What did I miss? But then Elie turned to me and assuaged my anxiety. “That kind of sucked,” he said. Maybe it’s just dated. Every compliment we could find for the film was given with the asterisk “…for 1979.” The special effects were cool… for 1979. It was pretty scary… for 1979. Alien was a forward-thinking movie, but its influence is easier to appreciate than its entertainment value. Booker Smith
Argo [Director: Ben Affleck, 2012] Who else is sick of seeing John Goodman play John Goodman? Argo isn’t a bad film, but it’s not great, and is easily the worst Best Picture winner of the last 10 years. Never mind the fabricated aspects of the script; most biopics are injected with a few lies to add dramatic tension. In fact, I would’ve liked a few more fibs. Maybe that would’ve given some life to this otherwise generic political thriller. 2012 was an admittedly weak year for movies, but how is Argo the consensus favorite when Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, and Beasts of the Southern Wild were competing in the same category? It’s obviously the Affleck effect. His Hollywood reinvention was a lower profile McConaissance that kicked off with his 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. The Town, his best film, followed in 2010. When that one failed to win any major awards, I assume critics just decided it was “his time” and gave most of their trophies to Argo. At least Zero Dark Thirty didn’t win Best Picture… Booker Smith
Batman & Robin [Director: Joel Schumaker, 1997] In 1999, Schumaker directed Nicolas Cage and a young Joaquin Phoenix in 8MM, a sick slice of S&M underworld thrill-bait that doesn’t belong anywhere near this article. I only bring it up now because just two years earlier the same director foisted Batman & Robin on the movie-going public, sinking a spike the size of the Washington Monument into the rotting heart of a once-intriguing movie franchise. George Clooney is not even credible as Batman. Chris O’Donnell is jealous that Alicia Silverstone is around to steal his thunder as jailbait ward. In a gross capitalization on their then pop-cultural ubiquity, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger mug and catchphrase for fat paydays; Bane’s first silver-screen appearance is a sad joke. Michael Gough, so memorable as Alfred in all four of these movies, must have been mortified. The sole redeeming aspect of Batman & Robin was that Batman Forever felt a vital and compelling as The Godfather in comparison. Raymond Cummings
The Fifth Element [Director: Luc Besson, 1997] “Blade Runner, but as a gonzo, bizarro-world farce” may have been exactly what Besson was pursuing when he conceived of The Fifth Element, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the idea was really worth exploring for any longer than two minutes. Yet this, undisputedly the worst entry in Bruce Willis’ sci-fi oeuvre—worse than Surrogates—runs for a torturous 127 minutes. Pitched somewhere between Andy Warhol at his most gauche and CGI it its most indifference, the set design was a shrug so slapdash that it bordered on oppressive. In 2263, Willis’ character becomes embroiled in an ancient imbroglio too ludicrous to even bother summarizing and ping-pongs around the galaxy, encountering Ian Holm and an awesome, mute Milla Jovovich. Eventually they encounter a pansexual Chris Tucker and face off against Gary Oldman, who is evil and powerful and bleeds oil from his hairpiece. Willis isn’t terrible in this—he basically reprises his Pulp Fiction role as a regular joe inexplicably caught up in some unusual circumstance that wrecks his day—but the movie bullies credulity to the point where it’s impossible to sit through in anything other than a constant state of cringing and wincing and covering one’s eyes. From an artistic perspective, in retrospect, maybe there’s something beautiful and profound about an alien opera singer getting gunned down and bleeding viscous, blue-green goo after belting out a beautiful aria, but at the time it felt like a swansong for Western Civilization. I willingly paid actual money to watch this abortion in a theater, and I still don’t know why. Raymond Cummings
Forrest Gump [Director: Robert Zemeckis, 1994] I’ve got a soft spot for Tom Hanks, which has nothing to do with his many great movies. One night in the late 1990s, my family and I were dining at Malibu’s Granita, and my young son Nicky was bushed after a full day and wandered off to nap on a banquette, which was occupied by Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson. It was a bit embarrassing—not because of the celebrity factor, but mere restaurant decorum—but Hanks and Wilson were extraordinarily kind, fussing over the sleeping boy and waving off our apologies.
And what a run Hanks has had: my favorites include Catch Me If You Can, Saving Private Ryan, That Thing You Do!, Philadelphia, and The Road to Perdition. But Forrest Gump? A bunch of hooey, and I barely made it through the screening for all the saccharine baloney. Sally Field, as Forrest’s mother, is atrocious, and though I like the performances of Gary Sinise and Robin Wright just fine, the film’s Zelig motif is just too much to handle. Forrest appears on The Dick Cavett Show with John Lennon, which inspires the latter to write the treacly “Imagine”? Please. It’s all too rich: with Nixon setting up Forrest at the Watergate; Elvis rooming at his mother’s house, meeting with JFK, and front and center at George Wallace’s defiant stand at the University of Alabama in 1963. This film is as sickly-sweet as that box of chocolates. Russ Smith
GoodFellas [Director: Martin Scorsese, 1990] I like GoodFellas a lot, have seen it three or four times, but never understood the over-the-top gushing it’s received over the years. Could be a Godfather I and II problem: as for many others, those two films defined the modern gangster genre for me, and also—conforming to the tics of my generation—I’ll often trade lines from the movies in emails with buddies. Guess I’m in the minority, but the rightfully vaunted Scorsese has, in my eyes, come up with far better work: Taxi Driver, The Departed (another crime film, but of a different stripe than GoodFellas, which also has Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg at the top of their respective games), King of Comedy, the inexplicably neglected After Hours, and, of course, Raging Bull.
Robert DeNiro, Paul Sorvino (his prison scenes are priceless), and Lorraine Bracco shine in this film based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy about Henry Hill’s ill-fated association with the Lucchese family, but as Hill, Ray Liotta, with that grating voice, bugs the shit out of me. Even worse is Joe Pesci, who won a Best Supporting Actor for his role, with his histrionics and scene after scene of gratuitous violence. Obviously violence is a staple of crime films, but I’d prefer a bullet to the skull than Pesci’s depiction of Tommy DeVito employing ever cruder methods of rubbing someone out. Russ Smith
Gran Torino [Director: Clint Eastwood, 2008] Eastwood’s apology for the angry old racist who watches his world vanish before him is simply repulsive. Angry old racists are not going to change their ways because Asian neighbors are nice to them; this movie doesn’t validate the racists’ worldview, and it doesn’t question their existence. Eastwood’s character’s grumpy and cantankerous condition is supposed to be endearing, but instead it’s just disgusting, and the movie mourns the death of his world and way of life over the tragedy and oppression of the minorities he begrudgingly comes to accept out of necessity. Comfort food for the stubborn elderly and racists of all ages, Eastwood’s portrait of the Angry American is just too apologetic and understanding to be anything less than gross. I’d rather watch the star talk to an empty chair for two hours than sit through this, or his latest “character study” about a sociopathic sniper. Nicky Smith
Hannah and Her Sisters [Director: Woody Allen, 1986] Allen's dialogue is like a club to the head. It punishes you. If you have some idea of how people sound and what they care about, and how these two factors come together in speech, his dialogue will make you sorry that you can hear. Taking it in is like the ear's equivalent of arranging cinder blocks in piles. “I have enormous needs,” says Mia Farrow in Hannah. Michael Caine: “Easy. You're a dignified financial adviser. It doesn't look good for you to swoon.” Barbara Hershey, to Caine: “I love that book you lent me. The Easter Parade? You were right. It had very special meaning for me.” Her boyfriend, the aged Scandinavian nihilist who has no truck with televangelists: “If Jesus came back, and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.” Well said, somebody's younger brother. Hannah is about life, the passage of time, and finding your way—and it’s about scarves and polished wood and big apartments on the Upper West Side. When people think of quality cinema, they think of this. It's why they say the allegations against Allen present such a quandary, as opposed to presenting more crud atop an aged urinal cake. C.T. May
The Hunger Games [Director: Gary Ross, 2012] This is the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. The American take on the concept of Battle Royale is less violent but far more upsetting, because there is no humor at all—I mean, this is just Harry Potter, except that we see children die horrible deaths, slung with arrows, stabbed, shot. Battle Royale succeeded because of its ridiculousness, because the violence was more exaggerated, and because the characters were as savage and desperate as you would expect in a situation like that; the point is made well. The Hunger Games treats the state-sanctioned competitive murder of children like a game of Quidditch instead of the barbaric and dystopian reality that it truly is.
The Hunger Games sets its stakes too low, and its priorities are all screwed up: it cares about making heroes out of its stars instead of focusing on condemning the Games and cautioning the audience that this could actually happen—maybe in less than a hundred years. It’s a movie for children about competitive murder that asks no questions and never stops to point out how awful its world is. That violence is obscured makes it all the more disturbing, lessening the impact. The titular contest seems like any other game. If you’re going to do this story, go all-out: show the kid exploding, show her guts all over her classmates. Sanitized death is far more disgusting than pointed absurdity. Nicky Smith
Jerry Maguire [Director: Cameron Crowe, 1996] The problem here is Tom Cruise. When did he become unwatchable? Long before the Oprah nuttiness: maybe with Mission: Impossible and Eyes Wide Shut. As with Ben Stiller and Sylvester Stallone, I won’t go to a film starring Cruise. Yes, Cuba Gooding Jr. is terrific in Jerry Maguire, and “Show me the money!” is a funny line. But even worse than Cruise’s ever-present shit-eating grin: the moment when he tells co-star and romantic interest Renee Zellweger: “You complete me.” I’ve no idea if the phrase ever became common parlance with couples, but it made me lose my lunch. Sure, Cruise has talent: movies like Risky Business, The Color of Money (though there he was upstaged by Paul Newman), A Few Good Men, and Rain Man (bested by Dustin Hoffman) are all decent or better. I could, conceivably, watch any one of those again. But not Jerry Maguire. Russ Smith
The Last Picture Show [Director: Peter Bogdanovich, 1971] It’s the third day of senior English class, and we’ve just finished watching The Last Picture Show. “What’d you think of the movie, boys?” Mr. Van asks. Our school went co-ed 30 years ago, but he’s still stuck in the 1960s.
No one speaks. The novel had been assigned to us for summer reading, so we were already familiar with the story. Mr. Van gave us a lecture on the merits of this film before we started it. “It’s one of the greatest movies ever made” and “It’ll bring you to tears” and “Cybil Sheppard is smokin’!”
It was probably because of this build up that nobody especially liked the movie. “It was a bit of a letdown,” Amanda says. Mr. Van nods for 15 seconds. He looks up at the rest of us when he realizes nobody’s going to talk. “Well,” he says. “Which one of you is going to refute Amanda’s idiotic, and frankly, embarrassing, statement?”
“I didn’t really like it, either,” Zach says.
“Is this how you all feel?” Mr. Van asks. We nod, and he glares at us. We have just attacked his baby. “Well, there’s only one solution,” he says. “We’re watching it again. And we will continue to watch it until you recognize its brilliance. Each and every one of you.” I still don’t like The Last Picture Show, even though it got me out of English for a week. Booker Smith
Patch Adams [Director: Tom Shadyac, 2008] There's this psycho who's never appreciated, but finally everyone all admits that he's right about everything. That's Patch Adams. God, the reaction shots! The potato-faced Irish nurses blooming with smiles. Why? Because Robin Williams remembered them in his big speech. Patch Adams delivers it at the movie's climax, when everybody admits that he's wonderful. It's like an Oscar acceptance for personal sainthood, for leading a life that's better than anybody else's. The Williams idea of wonderfulness is to command such a moment, but to share the wealth, too. So he says nice things about the sisters; they get their 10 seconds. Back to Philip Seymour Hoffman, his fat face sweating its admiration for his new friend: that bountiful spirit! Hoffman's face is a big bulb forcing out Watts. He was such a talented actor, and so trained, and here all he does is provide a maximum of awe for Williams, a few seconds when admiration for that idiot with the clown nose seems as ripe and inevitable as the shape of Kate Winslet's breasts as DiCaprio gaped at them in Titanic.
That's Hollywood, I guess. Being at its top means turning out high-gloss versions of dumb things, of nothing much, like magazine illustrators from the era of $1,000 paychecks. Williams commanded the best of Hollywood's technical talent in putting on a Thanksgiving Day parade version of himself—a tremendous amount of nothing much, all in his image. Maybe he found that experience satisfying enough and repined only because he couldn't repeat it, his career being on the down slope. Maybe the experience was no good in and of itself, and Williams found that out. Anyway, he killed himself, and Hoffman overdosed from heroin. C.T. May
The Silver Linings Playbook [Director: David O. Russell, 2012] An easy, feel-good movie about manic depression designed to win Oscars? Good intentions abound from stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but Russell’s adaptation of the novel is half-baked and completely disingenuous. It’s all comfort food built out of feel-good clichés about second chances, “overcoming,” finding love, doing your best, and then winning in the end. These kinds of movies are a dime a dozen, but coming from Russell, it reeks of cynicism and desperation. Silver Linings Playbook comes across like a checklist of NPR platitudes erected around a well-worn bottoming-out-and-getting-the-girl plot. Especially offensive: its eagerness to coddle and satisfy the audience, assuring them that they won’t be challenged to think or disturbed in any way. Bi-polar disorder has never been more palatable and easy to swallow, but I didn’t buy a second of it. Everything about this movie rings hollow. Nicky Smith
Southland Tales [Director: Richard Kelly, 2006] Leafing through any number of reputable dictionaries to “unsynopsizable,” you shouldn’t be surprised to find a thumbnail theatrical poster for Southland Tales, Kelly’s ambitious, post-Donnie Darko travesty. An incoherent fantasia that purports to send up the Bush II War-on-Terror delirium, Tales is one-third big-budget B-flick, one-third stoner thriller, one-third impressionistic music video. There are campy, creepy environmental saviors-cum-villains whose machinations threaten the stability of reality as we know it. There’s a Big Brother-esque government contracting company with horrible background-check game.
There are tons of taciturn and/or pot-smoking revolutionaries and cops who bear uncomfortable resemblances to Saturday Night Live third-stringers. The plot? Fuck the plot. There is loads of bullshit CGI. There is—no shit, for real—a scene where Seann William Scott and Lou Pucci chain an ATM to a Hummer, and Scott deadpans “we’re taking the ATM with us to Mexico” before they wrench the ATM out of a bank wall. Did I mention that Pucci, astride a levitating ice cream truck, fires a rocket launcher at a zeppelin and blows it up? He does. And did I mention that while that’s happening, two Scott doppelgangers have a heart-to-heart in said ice-cream truck? Yes, that happens—and Bai Ling slinks around like a stoned serpent queen, and Justin Timberlake, in a blood-stained white tee, dances through a video arcade with cheesecake pin-up nurses while The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” plays. It’s that kind of unhitched madness, and it all probably makes a twisted sort of sense if you’re higher than a runaway weather balloon. Raymond Cummings
Storytelling [Director: Todd Solondz, 1998] Solondz works a particular line in misery, like a cartoonist capable of drawing only one thing. With Storytelling, he tried satire and flopped. That is, he didn't draw his goofy cartoon of what it is to be depressed. He attempted cartoons of other subjects—white guilt, the evil of documentary makers—and it turned out that he had little to offer. He was willing to go far and offend, but that was it: he had no follow-up. The white girl discovered one horrible thing after another about her black writing teacher, and she kept telling herself “Don't be racist!”
Did Solondz have anything to say about this fact of white psychology? No; he just jabbed at a nerve. That’s all an art-house audience needs: the thrill of experiencing something the normal run of moviegoer doesn't come across. If Jay Leno dared to perform a sketch about white guilt, it would be on the lines found in Storytelling, with the dumb girlie repeating “Don't be racist!” as she finds handcuffs, etc. But Leno doesn't dare; Solondz dares. He provides us with Storytelling, which is multiplex Leno. Then the fools in the seats think it's art because it shocks somebody or other. On Fametracker, the old message board, devotees cooed at each other because the movie had moments aping the soundtrack of American Beauty, puckish little nods to the American Beauty grocery bag caught in the wires. This tip of the hat was made much of by the Fametrackers, as if the world were the staff of a high school yearbook. C.T. May
Superman III [Director: Richard Lester, 1983] A deathless truism holds that comic-book readers are invariably adolescents and arrested-development adults. This is patently false, of course, but if one held Superman III up as a sort of cross-media Exhibit A, it might be necessary to concede some points to the opposition. If, in 1980, a group of junior studio executives tasked with brainstorming a Superman script chained themselves in a boardroom for a week with nothing but a case of Jolt and a barrel of super-size Gobstoppers, this turkey might be the result.
Everything’s a hash tonally, a car crash of random plot points. What if Clark Kent had an evil side? What if Lana Lang was kind of an idiot who Clark fell in love with again? And what if Lana had a kid? What if Lois Lane wasn’t even in the movie, really? What if there were these really vile, gross chemicals that this total dick was responsible for, and he wanted to control various commodities, and he faced off with Supes? And, shit, what if we could convince Richard Pryor to basically play himself in this thing—as a completely unconvincing computer genius—just for funsies? Lots of stuff glows and pulses and explodes at the climax of a cinematic nightmare that’s somehow even worse than Pootie Tang, which is really saying something. If this turns up on cable, you should definitely force yourself to sit through it, if only to expand your working definition of the phrase “lowest-common denominator pandering.” Raymond Cummings
Zero Dark Thirty [Director: Kathryn Bigelow, 2012] No, it’s not American Sniper-level rah-rah nationalism, but Bigelow’s movie about the search for Osama Bin Laden is too ambiguous and easily misinterpreted as a celebration of torture and all the awful practices our country was willing to perform in the name of justice. Islamic fundamentalist terrorists dressed all in black, tied to chairs, and beaten to a pulp to raucous applause from the same people who sent us dozens of private messages in response to my brother’s recent takedown of American Sniper, calling us scum and claiming that any criticism of our military and our soldiers was—and here, I quote—“dangerous.”
Sorry, you can’t make a movie about torture and fucked government tactics this ambiguous and expect people with snakes and naked ladies on their mud flaps not to cheer whenever a person with brown skin gets beaten or shot. Better to humanize both sides and provide a context for why we were attacked on 9/11 in the first place: not because anyone hated our freedoms, but because we tried to colonize and control the Middle East decades ago. It hits too close to the bone too, because it deals with the pickle we’re in now, and by distorting the motives of our enemy and glorifying what we’ve done, it sends exactly the wrong message. Nicky Smith