I can’t stop the hate-filled feeling I have for these films.
I have mentioned here and there across various articles this past fortnight that Film as a whole has not exactly always been at the forefront of my brain, this past year. I have also mentioned that this past year for films was actually, quietly a very strong year overall, with so many films to recommend if you knew where to look that I had to cut a bunch from my Top 20. What I haven’t acknowledged so far, but will do now, is that most of the “bad” films released in 2016, and there were quite a number, were mostly just interchangeable and forgettable. They mostly failed to offend, they mostly failed to leave any lasting impression, and they caused few strong feelings one way or the other beyond boredom.
All of this is both a general fact, and a conscious attempt by me to lower your expectations for this list. I know what you’re wanting out of this list, because it’s what I oftentimes want out of a critic’s Worst or Bottom list: scathing pans of awful movies with entertaining amounts of bile, venom, and sick burns being thrown about the place. Mostly, though, I can’t really give that to you. Partially as a result of last year being a hectic Hell for me, partially as a result of much of the year’s films being really good, partially as a result of most of the bad ones being interchangeable slop, and mostly as a result of the year completely bottoming out by the end of February and things only finding a sub-basement from that 4 times afterwards, I just don’t have the same fury that powered last year’s Bottom 10.
That said, I did see some awful movies last year that fit the bill, and we can’t fully leave 2016 behind without giving it one last deserved middle-finger for all of the pain it hath brought us, so let’s do this thing. Before we start, though, an important clarification: this is not a Worst Films list. A Worst Films list consists of inarguably bad films that are poorly made and easy targets, and nobody gains anything from those lists. Films like Collateral Beauty and Gods of Egypt are terrible and abysmally-made films, but not only are you not surprised by that fact, I actually gained genuine enjoyment out of experiencing them, even if that enjoyment was mostly as a result of laughing at the ineptitude on display. No, this is a Bottom Films list, spaces on which are reserved for films that made me angry, that offended me, appalled me, disgusted me, irritated me, embodied everything wrong with modern moviemaking, or made me question why on earth I am still subjecting myself to this whole “Film Critic” thing. These are not the films that faded away after a few hours, these are the films that stuck with me and all for the worse.
Same eligibility rules apply as with the Top 20 – hence why you won’t find any traces of The Revenant or Lion anywhere on this list – and the same sort of structure for revealing the list applies. Today we count down numbers 10 to 6, and tomorrow we do The Final Five. Finally, before we get into things, one or two Dishonourable Mentions that just about failed to make the cut: Dad’s Army and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, Mother’s Day, The 5th Wave, Robinson Crusoe, and Me Before You.
Right, without further ado, everyone says don’t stay in the sad place where they don’t care how you are…
There may be spoilers, proceed with caution.
Dirs: Mike Mitchell, Walt Dohrn
Star: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel (voices)
In 2015, Pixar released Inside Out, a devastating, complex, beautiful, and thoroughly honest work of art about the nature of happiness, the acceptance of sadness, the encroachment of depression, and how happiness is not a choice and a society that treats it as a choice only ends up causing severe lasting emotional damage within those who internalise that harmful rhetoric. It affected me deeply, pushed me to a real emotional breakthrough with regards to my own depression that has laid a solid groundwork for the progress I made over the past year, and was my runaway Film of the Year in the way that only the most personally-affecting films can be. In 2016, DreamWorks Animation released Trolls, a soulless, simplistic, often-boring, and thoroughly cynical cash-cow about how miserable depressed people are only being so by choice, and that the way to fix that is to effectively yell at them until they start being happy. Oh, and get them a romantic partner, too, preferably one of the opposite sex, cos that usually seems to do the trick.
Look, I don’t want to be the guy who brings up Pixar whenever the conversation about Western Animation and the films of DreamWorks Animation comes up – hell, one of the entire points of The DreamWorks Animation Retrospective was to discuss their films on their own merits, with as minimal references to the P word as possible – but there really is no way to not reference Inside Out when talking about Trolls, particularly when Inside Out is literally the better version of Trolls albeit without the musical element. That film had the courage of its convictions, it was willing to go to heavy places and see them through because it trusted the audience enough to follow the film through thick and thin. It was made with heart and soul, a mature understanding that could only come from storytellers fully invested in their art, and the kind of pure intentions that are aware of the power films can have upon a person.
Now imagine if Inside Out interrupted the scene where Joy completely breaks down in The Memory Dump for Bing-Bong to make a crack about how weird it is for things to be getting super-serious around here, or if Riley’s reconciliation with her parents was immediately followed by a random side-character of no value or personality saying “oh my God” in a silly voice to alleviate the tension. Imagine if Inside Out decided to start off with an over-written, over-plotted 20-minute prologue that also threw in 25 side-characters, all distractingly voiced by big name celebrities, each with their own backstory and personality, told us to care about each and every single one of them, and only then started the plot with Joy and Sadness. Imagine if Inside Out switched out its plot at the halfway mark for a Cinderella-take featuring an entirely new character, that takes the focus away from most of the themes and momentum built up in the previous half of the film. Imagine if its ultimate message on happiness deigned to pivot around the false beliefs that happiness is a choice, that one can make all of the friends if they just tried hard enough, and that the quickest and bestest way to fight off depression is to find yourself a boy/girlfriend. Imagine if, instead of the insidiously-catchy Triple Dent Gum jingle, Inside Out mashed up “I’m Coming Out” and “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” and acted like it was a genius for coming up with such a concoction.
That last one is more of a petty nitpick of mine, but you get the point. Trolls is competent and not really so much “bad” as it is just “mediocre and forgettable,” but it’s also just such a thoroughly dishonest and cynical film that it cannot help but nag away at me, like an itch in an embarrassing place when you’re in public. One of the whole points of the film, the lesson that Poppy has to learn, is that the world is oftentimes a cruel and uncaring place that can’t be fixed by singing at it, yet the entire finale is built around singing the hatred and sadness away. It’s a film that looks at grief and how one overcomes it without ever calling attention to the privilege and support system that its main characters have to help them with these things. It’s a film that absolutely refuses to treat its viewers like they have a mental capacity beyond that of a 4-year-old, always undercutting any potential moment of drama with a lame gag. It’s a film that is so generic, passionless, and by-the-numbers, with so many amateur-hour mistakes despite all of its creative team having been around the block many better times before, that it tangibly doesn’t even seem to believe the harmful, reductive, pat platitudes that it’s selling.
It’s not just that Trolls isn’t a good movie, it’s that it’s a quietly, personally insulting one. It’s that Pixar covered this exact same territory better last year, as proof that this can be done right. And it’s that DreamWorks themselves spent their years post-Shrek Forever After proving that they’re better than this. To see them regress so majorly feels like a betrayal to me, and no amount of Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake duets can make up for that.
Dir: Morten Tyldum
Star: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen
There’s this plot on an episode of the brilliant It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Mac, Dennis, and Charlie buy a boat. Whilst the other two have their own reasons for buying the boat, Dennis’s is revealed to be as part of a ruse to get women to have sex with him. In his own words, the idea is that he can get the ladies “nice and tipsy topside” before taking them downstairs to a bed below deck where he will broach the idea of having sex, to which they won’t refuse “because of the implication.” “The implication,” you see, is that Dennis will rape them if they don’t have sex with him, although he is indignantly insistent that nothing will happen between them if the woman says no. “But the thing is she’s not gonna say no, she would never say no, because of the implication.” Passengers is the movie version of that.
(I know this breaks the flow, but I need to stop briefly to give a shout-out to my friend Ben, @ZoomyRamen on Twitter, for being the one I saw first bringing up this observation. Thanks for letting me nick it from you!)
Not that you’d know it if somebody hadn’t told you going into the film, of course. Clearly, Sony’s marketing team was filled with more aware people (read: women) than anybody involved in the creative team for Passengers were, since they chose to hide the actual premise of the film from the trailers and marketing, trying to concoct a non-existent “twist” out of why Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are the only 2 people awake on this ship filled with thousands of passengers in stasis rather than spill the beans. Jim (Pratt) awakens due to a malfunction, Aurora (Lawrence, subtle) awakens because Jim forces her pod to do so. See, after a year of roaming the good ship Avalon with only Android Michael Sheen to keep him company, Jim stumbles upon the sleeping pod of Aurora and, instantly, his violent suicidal tendencies melt away. He spends weeks staring at her, researching videos of her, and debating back-and-forth as to whether or not he should wake her up, before doing so and then, when she asks why she woke 89 years early, lies to her face about his involvement.
Actually, I wasn’t being entirely truthful earlier when I said that Sony’s marketing team seem to be more aware of Passengers’ more-than-uncomfortable undertones than the people making it. Everybody involved with Passengers are aware of the kind of film they’ve made, they just don’t care that they made it. The film repeatedly and openly brings up the question of whether Jim was justified in waking up Aurora – ripping her life and agency away from her in the process – and, after a long and considered bout of soul-searching that takes up about 5/10 minutes of screentime, comes down on the side of “yeah, I guess, he was lonely and what was a man to do, really?” Every time it slides into its inoffensive-rom-com clothing, it’ll bring back up the giant Stockholm Syndrome-shaped implication in the room, only to shoot it right back down again, in a cycle that’s far worse than if the film had just been completely unaware of it all.
Instead, a sequence of Jim effectively stalking Aurora around the ship after she discovers the truth about her awakening is played, not as the turning point where the film finally transitions into a psychological thriller, but as an anguished declaration of love and gawd isn’t Aurora just such a bitch for not listening to Jim’s well thought out excuse that we’d all do if we were in such a similar situation, right guys? Christ, Jim even gets a short sequence early on where he unloads his aggression at being alone on a Heavy Bag, he sets up their every interaction between them both so that they’ll become lovers for life, and he shaves off his awful beard in time for waking Aurora up. This is exactly like if 10 Cloverfield Lane were from Howard’s perspective, didn’t care about the abuse implications, and was directed by a miserably boring director who appears to have only seen 3 films in his entire life – seriously, Morten Tyldum’s direction here reveals a man whose sole exposure to sci-fi movies consists of 20 random minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey and nothing else.
There’s a part of me that at least respects the Dennis Reynolds of the world managing to break into the Film industry, and doing their best to hide their horrifying garbage behind the blandest and most inoffensive filmmaking possible, but shit like this is why half of the voting populace of the United States felt comfortable electing a misogynist who enjoys grabbing women “by the pussy” with absolutely no shame. Passengers is repulsive, but also just a mite too dull for me to get extremely worked up about, which probably says something worrying about me if I’m being honest.
08] Independence Day: Resurgence
Dir: Roland Emmerich
Star: The Less Talented Hemsworth, Not-Mae Whitman, Reduced-Discount Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum for some ungodly reason
Blockbusters almost uniformly sucked in 2016. They’ve been sucking for a while now, but 2016 was the year that their sucking reached an apex. It’s not just that they’re bad films, it’s that the vast majority of them sucked in the exact same ways. A colossal disaster like The Legend of Tarzan became a rare beast, a fantastical unicorn whose existence was still baffling and made for massively unentertaining viewing, but was at least a break from the interchangeable pile of amateur-hour garbage being lobbed into multiplexes nationwide this past Summer – hence why you won’t find it anywhere on this list despite being an indisputable disaster of Pan-level proportions. Instead, there was a homogenous nature to the year’s terrible blockbusters, like Hollywood had finally managed to work out the formula for cranking out loud shiny spectacles designed to hoover up money from passive audiences the globe over with as little effort as possible.
If you’ve watched nearly any blockbuster from this past Summer, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re the films that openly announce that they have no reason to exist and no story to tell. They’ll spend forever on their first acts, introducing a glut of characters with little rhyme or reason, dumping copious amounts of barely-relevant backstory on you, cutting between scenes and locations with little concern for coherency or rising momentum, blatantly marking time until something close to an hour has passed… before skipping ahead entirely to their third acts, cutting out any of the character development, interactions, or even just plain downtime required to connect to the cast emotionally, discern any of them from one another, or explore any themes whatsoever. As a result, these films have no point to them – no characters, no themes, no emotional investment – and you’re supposed to care solely as a result of brand recognition and wanton CGI destruction, which made up 90% of blockbusters released this year anyway.
Oh, and there’s a Giant Sky-Beam of Death in the Third Act, for there now is always a Giant Sky-Beam of Death in the Third Act.
Upon watching Rogue One for the first time, I was hit by a reaction to large-scale CGI planetary destruction I hadn’t experienced in a blockbuster for a long-while: terror. Actual terror, real chills, and horror at the destruction that was being committed on-screen. I felt this because Rogue One had spent the time leading up to this sequence putting in the work to gain such a reaction. It established a personable ground-floor perspective of life on the planet in question, it created characters I enjoyed being in the company of and gave them personal investments in that destruction, it personified the villains responsible as more than just a faceless horde of nebulous value with motivations of their own, and it created such a credible world with an intimate scale that the destruction was genuinely shocking. By contrast, at the hour mark of Independence Day: Resurgence, the aliens simultaneously destroy multiple capital cities the world over by reversing the polarity of the Earth’s gravity, in a spaceship the size of the entire Eastern Seaboard, eradicating billions of lives in the process in a giant CGI destruction orgy, and all I felt was tedious boredom.
So it goes with Independence Day: Resurgence, 2 hours of expensive large-scale CGI destruction that inspires nothing more than unrestrained levels of boredom because it barely qualifies as a film. There’s definitely no point to it, there’s barely any narrative here and what there is is nothing more than scraps of the still-great original injected on steroids. There are certainly no characters to speak of – at one point, The President of the United States, who has been a frequently-featured presence throughout the first hour, is unceremoniously murdered with off-screen and nobody mentions her again. There is definitely no second act, with the film spinning its wheels for a full hour before crashing headlong into its relentless third act. It even frequently appears actively contemptuous of the version of this film that it’s presenting, constantly teasing a far more interesting prequel during the first hour and a vastly… less samey sequel at the very end, yet sticking to this sleepwalking guff-fest. And even with Emmerich’s usual overly-campy detours and attempts at “humour,” including Judd Hirsch adopting a school bus full of orphaned children for a surprisingly-recurrent subplot because why not, it’s so miserably self-serious as to be completely devoid of any fun at all.
The question, then, comes back to simply: why does this film exist? It’s one that can be levelled at a lot of this year’s blockbusters, and there are a couple more still to come on this list, but Independence Day: Resurgence takes the main representation slot on this here list for being the most pointless, the most blandest, and the most poorly made of them all. On the bright side, Mae Whitman probably feels like she dodged one hell of a bullet when she wasn’t asked back for it.
07] London Has Fallen
Dir: Babak Najafi
Star: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
I made Arrival my Film of 2016 – and, yes, I am aware that I keep making comparisons with films on my Bottom list to films on my Top list; things have surprisingly offered apt contrasts this year – because it was a film that offered me hope. It preached love, tolerance, and understanding. It saw change and progress as things to be embraced. It looked at how we Other those we can’t fully communicate with, in a way reminiscent of how the Western English-speaking world Others damn-near everybody else, and demonstrated how our worst, most paranoid and xenophobic fears can put progressive communication and strong relationships at risk, and how reasoned discussion and good intentions can instead bring us all closer together and destigmatise that which we don’t fully know or understand. London Has Fallen, meanwhile, has Gerard Butler stabbing a Pakistani terrorist in the head whilst yelling “Go back to Fuckheadistan!”
Considering the year that we have had – one where xenophobia, racism, isolationism, belief in nationalist supremacy, and plain old hatred trumped love, compassion, globalism, integration, and tolerance time and time again – London Has Fallen truly is the film that most befits the state of the world right now. It’s a hateful, racist, blustering temper-tantrum for attention that, somehow even more so than the Antoine Fuqua-directed and relentlessly boring original Olympus Has Fallen, exists as nothing more than a power-fantasy for the kind of twerps suffering from “economic anxiety” that keep holding us back from societal progress. It’s a film for the unemployed Dad in your life who complains about “all those Polish folks coming over here taking our jobs,” who believes that your country needs “taking back” from some nebulous Other force, who thinks that the more blatantly-Islamophobic seasons of 24 are fine examples of what our policies towards Muslims should be, and who still uses the term “political correctness” as a pejorative in the year 2016.
There’s an advert for a Hugo Boss fragrance featuring Has Fallen star Gerard Butler, and in it he drones on and on about what a Man is and how he is “A Man of Today” with a straight goddamn face. This is the kind of brand that Butler has curated for himself, this image of some kind of hyper-masculine ideal that all other men should aspire to, in both pretentious perfume ads and his rap sheet of a filmography – he’s even starring in a thriller this year where rapid Climate Change is somehow part of an elaborate plan to attempt to assassinate the President – but the Has Fallen series, which he has a Producer’s credit on, really is his crown jewel in this regard. Look at how little either of these films care about anybody who isn’t Gerard Butler or President Aaron Eckhart, look at how much the camera paints both of them as paragons of masculinity who won’t back down from any fight or cower to any weasely-son-of-a-bitch terrorist bastard, look at how the inciting incident for London Has Fallen murders basically every other Western World Leader and leaves much of London in smoking rubble yet we aren’t supposed to care or dwell on that fact because WHAT ABOUT THE LEAST INTERESTING AMERICAN PRESIDENT YET DEPICTED ON FILM?!
It’s an ugly, oft-abhorrent little film, one with absolutely zero self-awareness about anything that is going on or any of the massively-conflicting messages that it preaches, yet has plenty of time for simultaneously indulging its homoerotic undercurrent whilst loudly protesting against such a reading cos that’s, like, totally gay, bro-ham. After all, who has time to proof-read a script to ensure that its messages of xenophobic hatred make any consistent sense – where the film creates its villain through a US done strike, which paints that practice as A Bad Thing, yet murders said villain at the end of the film through yet another US drone strike, ultimately painting the practice as a good (?) thing – when there’s blind masculine nationalistic patriotism to be indulged at every turn? In fact, those skewed priorities appear to have completely overtaken any inclination of trying to make a competently-produced film at all, what with the laughably-cheap special effects, rampant abuse of stock footage to disguise the fact that very little of this film was actually shot in London, incoherent action sequences, and completely indifferent direction.
The fact that London Has Fallen made enough money to justify the production of yet another sequel does not surprise me, not given how the past year in the world turned out. But it does disappoint and upset me. When the Arrival option is right there, why do we as a society keep regressing to the London Has Fallen option every single time?
06] Jason Bourne
Dir: Paul Greengrass
Star: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones
This shouldn’t exist. There is no reason for the Bourne franchise to still be going. The trilogy ended perfectly in 2007 with The Bourne Ultimatum, still one of the best thrillers of the whole 2000s, both in the sense that it revealed every mystery it had, closed every single character arc, but also, crucially, completed the evolution of the series into something as close to a left-wing conspiracy thriller as it is possible for one to make. In much the same way that I believe that it is impossible for one to make an apolitical war movie, I find that it’s near-impossible to make a left-wing conspiracy thriller. You might claim that this is nonsense, since these films push a distrust of governments and large-scale institutions, depicting them as self-serving and corrupt in their nature who need to be kept in check and questioned at all times. But think about it. Their alternative solution is that of One Man whose moral compass is always unquestioned working almost singlehandedly to bring down these evil forces, oftentimes turning out to be nothing more than a few bad apples rather the system itself, because everybody else is just blind to The Truth rather than actively complicit in the corruption and self-service.
So, in a sense, conspiracy thrillers are inherently conservative. Not just in how that kind of automatic and rabid distrust of The System has been co-opted by right-wingers and fascists to push bigoted unqualified jackholes into power, but also in how many of the core moral principles of those tales are rather equivalent to that of “Small Government,” a tenement of the Republican Party for much of its history and particularly the Reagan administration they venerate so much. Therefore, can one truly make a left-wing conspiracy thriller? The Bourne series, although immediately venerated as a “thinking man’s spy movie” with the right politics, seemed uninterested in answering this question at the outset – instead spending two movies producing nothing more than empty-but-fun genre exercises by design, whilst ticking off the usual “a few bad apples” checkboxes – but eventually tried its best to tackle that subject with Ultimatum and just about managed to pull it off, at that.
The lynchpin, the huge punch that the whole of the Bourne trilogy pivots on in order for there to be actual thematic meaning in a series that otherwise boils down to seeing how many different ways Matt Damon can murder people with household implements, is the reveal that Jason Bourne volunteered. Nobody made him into Jason Bourne, nobody manipulated him into doing the government’s dirty work, and nobody forced him to do anything: he chose this because he wanted to serve his country. This one reveal, withheld until the very end arguably by necessity, does what most Conspiracy Thrillers fail to do: it makes the protagonist complicit in the system he’s set on tearing down. It shows that there are no absolute forces of good or bad, that the morality involved is relative, and that everybody who gets involved with these systems will become compromised or worse in some way. That the solution is not burning things to the ground and starting again with a new morality dictated by one man’s always-righteous principles, but transparency, reasonable scepticism, and some degree of oversight. It doesn’t quite get there, again because it’s almost impossible to do so, but The Bourne Ultimatum’s reveal really does bring it closer than any other film that I know of to creating a left-wing conspiracy thriller.
An hour into Jason Bourne, the series instead retcons things so that Jason really was manipulated all along into joining Treadstone and becoming Jason Bourne, because the head of the program was, who else, his father who was murdered by the government after he tried to keep Jason from being recruited, becoming part of a long elaborate scheme to specifically indoctrinate and recruit Jason because reasons. With this one story turn, this one lazy overdone plot point, ALL of the hard work that The Bourne Ultimatum did to add meaning to a series that, up until then, was just a silly spy movie and to try and be a genuinely left-leaning conspiracy thriller… ALL of it is flushed down the toilet. Now the series that held the whole system to account, from the Brian Coxs of the world right down to the Matt Damons, and put the exclamation point on its whole series by pointing out the complicity of its nominal hero, becomes yet another “One man with an unshakeable and always-just moral compass fights against the system to expose its corruption” series, with the ending even finally turning Jason’s personal mission – which is the other thing, Jason is always fighting purely for himself, his journey of self-re-discovery, his mission of revenge – into a noble ideological one so that Universal can keep flogging the carcass of “artistic integrity” in favour of a few extra dollars across however many more films.
You may be wondering why I only talked about Jason Bourne in one paragraph and even then only in relation to how it fucks up the thematic point of the rest of the series, and that’s because there’s absolutely nothing else to talk about outside of it. Again, this just shouldn’t exist.
Return tomorrow for the second half of the countdown!