Send in the bad movies.
If you thought I was stretching when it came to filling out my Top 20, then allow me to inform you that stretching to 20 films I truly loved was a cakewalk compared to putting together my annual Bottom 10 this go around. Truth be told, exorcising the worst cinematic disasters of the previous twelve months just isn’t an exercise I relish quite like I used to. Maybe I’m getting old – I’m 25 and have officially been writing on the Internet about films for an entire decade, those two facts make me a bloody pensioner in Internet Years – and my temperament has changed to such an extent that focussing on the bad films for any stretch of time just honestly rather bores me now. I mean, why waste the time fixating on anger and hatred, factors that frankly the rest of the Internet has provided an excess of in recent years, when I can instead spend time finding the joy in and bigging up good things that are fun and haven’t had a tenth as much attention foisted upon them as fucking Joker has? I finally bought Spider-Man on PS4 and Untitled Goose Game three days ago, can I not just skip this entirely?
As I reason every year, though, these are the pieces which reliably generate the most traffic cos, as mentioned, anger and bile are the Internet’s stock in trade, so here we all are again. But even despite that knowledge, this year’s turn at the wheel really is more of an obligation rather than a cleanse I relish participating in. So you know, this is more of a Bottom 5 than a Bottom 10, you’re gonna wanna come back tomorrow for the properly angry stuff. One of these entries is really only here because of obligation despite my doing so being exactly what its filmmakers likely wanted in the first place. Another is on here despite rapturous critical acclaim elsewhere because this particular filmmaker just drives me up the fucking wall. One of my 10 would be much more befitting a placement on the Meh-gnificent 7 but I chose Men in Black: International for the latter over it, a decision made before the realisation set in that I now have to come up with 750+ words for a film I’ve forgotten everything about. And the #10 is really only here because you can’t do a Top 9, that would be weird.
This is what I meant most of all by “2019 was an extremely weak year for movies.” It’s all well and good that there weren’t a tonne of great movies going about the place, we can’t have 2014 or 2017 calibre years every year. But what truly sank this miserable, uninspired, uninteresting year was how even the bad movies couldn’t be arsed to memorably stink. They largely just existed, bland, beige, forgettable, completely wasting upwards of two hours of one’s precious life and not even having the common courtesy to be lastingly irritating in the process. Fuck’s sake, even that abominable Hellboy reboot refused to be a truly terrible movie for the ages, instead choosing to suck in exactly the boring ways I would’ve expected an R-rated Guillermo del Toro-less Hellboy reboot to suck, aside from mixing its audio poorly enough to give me a headache!
Regardless, I committed to this endeavour that’s probably going to see me flayed alive once the results are revealed, so let’s get it over with. If you’re new here, because these pieces do bring in a higher-than-average set of faces, hello! Hope you check out some of my other pieces whilst you’re in the area! As I stress every year, this is not a Worst Films list. I personally find most Worst Films lists to be mean-spirited, fish-in-barrel affairs which gravitate around the same few designated whipping boys. Fact of the matter is that boring bad films are no fun to talk about and ultimately pass out the mind-stream quickly and somewhat painlessly, whilst bizarre disasters of the “OH MY GOD HOW DID THIS GET MADE?!” strain are honestly the stuff I live for. No, to make the Bottom List you have to offend, insult, anger, irritate, and all-round apoplex me to a degree where it’s still a subject of conversation months later even after my friends have politely but firmly asked me to stop bringing it up. These are the true lowest of the low, folks, the stuff it’s not remotely fun to rip on because thinking about them in any capacity just makes one’s blood boil.
Same eligibility criteria as with the Top 20 – hence no Welcome to Marwen (for 2018 holdovers) and no Little Joe (for 2019 movies being held-over to 2020 for especially no adequate reason IT IS A FUCKING BRITISH MOVIE WHY) – and I cannot count what I have not seen hence no Serenity, Lucy in the Sky, Rambo: Last Blood, etc. Lastly, pretty much solely because it is also tradition by this point, I do have a number of Dishonourable Mentions which largely escaped with their designation on account of my having absolutely nothing substantial to say about them whatsoever. They are, in no particular order: Out of Blue, The Queen’s Corgi, The Aeronauts, Earthquake Bird, The Nightingale (which would’ve been a better fit for the list proper but was saved at the last second by Aisling Franciosi’s excellent central performance), and Cats (which also ended up on Honourable Mentions for the Top list to keep things perfectly balanced as they should be).
Right, who’s ready for some hate? Today, we’ll dispatch the first half of the list, and tomorrow is The Final Five. It’s an omen-men-men-men-men-men-men…
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
10] The Dirt
Dir: Jeff Tremaine
Star: Douglas Booth, Iwan Rheon, Colson Baker, Daniel Webber
Turns out there’s a very good reason why Jeff Tremaine’s directorial career has gone absolutely nowhere outside of Jackass and Jackass-esque stunts/hidden camera prank shows. The Dirt is one of the shoddiest, cheapest, most inept-looking movies to come along in a very long-ass time. A cursory Google is throwing up budgets ranging anywhere from $28 million to $40 million, since Netflix themselves have avoided releasing official numbers (presumably because this either cost way too much or $4.26 total), and yet I have seen episodes of Drake & Josh with higher and more convincing production values. Basic dialogue scenes are strangely blocked, flat-looking, and atrociously lit – there’s an early apartment rehearsal sequence that genuinely looked worse than the stuff I was making back in Secondary School – much of the dialogue has been noticeably ADR’d, and overall the enterprise looks like a low-budget direct-to-video effort from 2002. Except Tremaine is really desperately attempting to make a Martin Scorsese movie, so the film infrequently breaks into these hyper-stylised show-off-y sequences which jack the master’s visual language, editing techniques, and over-indulgence… only Tremaine is a bush-league director hopelessly out of his depth so these ill-fitting designated breaks just end up laughably amateurish.
Other than that, this Mötley Crüe biopic commits the same three cardinal sins all bad to abysmal music biopics are guilty of: having nothing to say about its subject, being boring as all hell, and far too closely resembling Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story for its own good. Same old, same old, not exactly a rap sheet deserving of a Bottom 10 entry. But what really rankles me about The Dirt is how much of a half-measure the entire movie feels. See, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Mötley Crüe were – or, I guess, now are again, despite that legally-binding contract – a bunch of horrible people. They were bullies, drug addicts, alcoholics, rampant misogynists, spouse-beating abusers, serial cheaters, permanently engaged in awful behaviour and seemingly running through the checklist of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll clichés pumped on steroids out of some kind of insecure macho performance desire. Their lead singer committed vehicular manslaughter, was sentenced to actual jail for just 19 days over it, and then went right back to the same destructive behaviour for several years before finally changing his ways!
All of this and way more besides is detailed in The Dirt, the group autobiography which makes for cringe-inducing yet weirdly compelling reading, written as it is with a more sober and somewhat-mature outlook by addicts free of their vices yet guilty fond of their excesses, rather like their music in general. So, if you’re gonna turn The Dirt into a movie, you have to go down one of two avenues. Either you lean into the mature sober reflective side, refusing to shy away from the lasting consequences and damage inflicted by their actions whilst sketching four captivating character studies which might help explain why they chose to partake in that behaviour and how it affected the music or vice versa. Or you go full-blown bad-taste outrageously indulgent vice-stravaganza which may sacrifice substance and emotional resonance, with the film either ending up morally repugnant or the ultimate guilty pleasure depending on who’s watching, but would at least provide an onslaught of memorably fucked-up dramatisations of the many implausible things that Mötley Crüe actually did do. One or the other, either is a valid method to tell this story.
Tremaine’s Dirt, as scripted by Rich Wilkes (the writer of xXx and Airheads, embarks upon the bold strategy of half-heartedly trying both and the results provide the worst of both worlds. It’s too self-serious and restrained to work as an orgy of guilty-pleasure spectacle, whilst simultaneously completely lacking in substance, point-of-view, or the slightest critical bone to wave against any member of the band to function as a legitimate serious biopic. Throw on top the truly inept filmmaking and so much tiresome fourth-wall breaking that I’m starting to get resentful of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People inadvertently teaching a generation of hack screenwriters the wrong lessons, and you just get a film which isn’t really for anyone. Serious film lovers will rightly rip it to shreds for being poorly made and having nothing to say. All but the most blindly loyal of Crüe fans will rightly declare it a missed opportunity for not being outrageous enough, skipping many important beats in the band’s history, and straining for a pathos in the last half-hour it does not earn. And everyone who doesn’t fall into either prior camp will forget the thing entirely by the following morning, if that.
Much like with Freddie Mercury, it should’ve been impossible to make the story of Mötley Crüe this boring and yet, much like with the makers of Bohemian Rhapsody, the team behind The Dirt managed that miraculous feat. Think of what other seemingly impossible feats these people could achieve if they ascribed a similar level of half-assery to those as they did here!
Dir: Todd Phillips
Star: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz
As I said up top, including Joker on this list feels like giving Todd Phillips and the movie’s legion of insufferable braying mules exactly what they want, so I’m going to do what this movie wouldn’t by having a point and getting it over with promptly. Joker is a boring, safe and, most importantly, empty movie that struts about loudly insisting it’s this exciting, dangerous work of art saying extremely profound things about the state of society when it, in fact, stands for nothing and has nothing to say. It isn’t so much ideologically bankrupt as completely lacking in even the faintest trace of an ideology or point of view. Joaquin Phoenix is fine and would honestly be a great Joker if he were allowed to play The Joker, with the caveat that this isn’t even his best performance in a modern take-off of 70s Scorsese this half-decade, but he’s hobbled by the fact that Phillips and Scott Silver’s screenplay doesn’t have a particularly coherent or compelling character at the centre of this ostensible character study. The production design is very nice. …that’s everything I have to say about Joker.
By all rights, this should’ve come, gone, and we’d all have moved on with our fucking lives because Joker is an empty, boring average movie, the kind we are inundated with dozens of every fortnight. Yet, somehow, I have been hearing about Joker on a non-stop loop for the past half-year and, thanks to it somehow gaining serious traction with various awards bodies, I’m going to have to hear about Joker for at least another two months until the Oscars are done and then maybe an additional month after that regardless of whether it wins or loses. This, despite there being nothing of interest within its shell. Why are we still talking about this vapid pointless movie? The controversy on all sides about this thing has been manufactured and contrived from the start as nothing more than buzz-building viral marketing that everybody fell for, hook line and sinker, and I include myself since I’m the loser still writing 500 words about a movie I have repeatedly mentioned is thoroughly average with nothing worthy of discussion. It’s not provocative, it’s not insightful, it’s not even particularly offensive outside of a few small bits, and it’s only a Serious Real Film in how pathetically self-serious and self-important it presents itself.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about Joker. It is, one last time, a boring and empty mediocre movie with nothing to say and no reason to pay it any mind once it finally draws to a close. Like a five-year-old threatening to put the family cat in the tumble-dryer, attention is all Joker and Todd Phillips want. They’re not being dangerous or provocative or have anything important to say. They’re just really loudly being boring.
08] Marriage Story
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Star: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johannsson, Laura Dern
At this point, my relationship with Noah Baumbach movies is akin to Charlie Brown’s efforts to kick the football. Every single time he releases another one of his infuriating, hyper-irritating, ghastly overwritten, tonally incompetent, witless, leaden garbage movies, I keep misguidedly thinking that “this time, it’s gonna be different! This time, I’m gonna get it!” Then I watch said new Baumbach movie and come away frothing with rage over having yet again been duped out of precious hours of my life I shall never get back. A smart person with basic pattern recognition skills would, after having had this occur six times, just file Baumbach away as “Not for Me” and move on with their lives. But the giant pulsating star that is Frances Ha keeps on taunting me overhead, a genuine best of the decade masterpiece just enough like Baumbach’s other insufferable movies to fit within his pedigree yet incandescently better and legitimately affecting than the universally terrible overrated shite he has otherwise spent his entire career pumping out. And I still don’t know how he made it! I’ve jokingly settled on “Greta Gerwig ghost-made the whole thing and stuck her partner’s name on the project out of sympathy” but, sincerely, this is a riddle that has been plaguing my mind for actual years now and I need a legitimate answer.
Just so we are clear, I do in fact go into every Noah Baumbach movie wanting to like it. I don’t actually go into any movie wanting to hate it or have a miserable time because not only is that unprofessional, but my life is far too short and worth at least enough for me to not really want to waste it on movies I dislike. And when Marriage Story became the talk of my particular critic friend circle whilst down at London Film Festival (I’d skipped the showing in favour of Rashaad Ernesto Green’s significantly better and currently unreleased Premature), with a few of them even stating that they normally don’t care for Baumbach but loved this one, I bought into the hype just enough that I committed to seeing it upon Netflix release. And when the movie’s first 10 to 15 minutes were extremely well set-up, finding a befitting and natural outlet for Baumbach’s overwritten didactic prose, with decent visual direction and editing plus some tangible hurt humanity in the performances by Scarlett Johannsson and Adam Driver, I allowed my hopes to be raised ever so slightly that maybe, this time, it was going to happen. Charlie Brown was going to kick the football. Noah Baumbach was going to make a good movie.
Then, in three successive increasingly worsening scenes – first when Johannsson’s Nicole goes to work on her Los Angeles pilot which gave me nightmarish flashbacks to Episodes, next when Nicole takes a meeting with amoral L.A. lawyer Nora (a truly horrible Laura Dern performance which is a sentence that hurts to type), and finally when Nicole ropes in her cartoonish family to help serve Driver’s Charlie official divorce papers – it turned out that NOPE! Lucy was going to successfully yank the football away again, and Noah Baumbach was going to retreat back into his insufferable hack pretension. Why, WHY, WHY on God’s green earth would anybody think that what this pretty decent episode of the unfairly forgotten HBO therapy drama In Treatment with a genuinely strong Adam Driver performance – please pour one out for poor Driver, by the way; he pulled out four highly enjoyable or really strong performances in four different films this year only for three of those films to be unmitigated dogshit – was missing were constant interrupting extracts from a Chuck Lorre sitcom?! The man has no wit and his characters are exclusively infuriating, over-the-top, unbelievable cartoon characters who are not fun to be around for all the wrong reasons. I frankly do not believe he understands human beings at all.
The comedy in Marriage Story is not funny because, as with almost every single one of his other films, he relies on the alleged inherent hilarity of quirky unbelievable straw figures, endless artless word vomit, and people just doing dumb things for no discernible reason – you have no idea how much I hated the knife trick sequence. The drama in Marriage Story is not compelling because every character other than Nora and Charlie completely fails to convince, there’s no interesting satirical underpinning or point being compellingly made, and the excessively-heightened and inconsistent characters cause almost all of the big sequences to ring insincere – the one properly great scene after those opening 15 minutes, the argument in Charlie’s new apartment, can’t even escape this; its last proper line pushing an otherwise deliberately uncomfortable and affecting scene into the realm of a fourteen year-old yelling about their break-up on LiveJournal. And any claims about Marriage Story offering an even-handed look at an amicable divorce turning bitter from both sides ends up being completely moot when, after the first of two unbearable hours, Baumbach just gives up splitting the difference, shunts Nicole (the Jennifer Jason Leigh stand-in as this is supposedly based off of his and her divorce) off to the story’s margins, and spends the rest of the movie fixated on Charlie (his stand-in) whilst constantly massaging the guy’s ego and fellating his supposed genius at all times.
I hated Marriage Story, absolutely hated it, and now I’m right back where I started: hating Noah Baumbach, inexplicably loving Francis Ha, ready to try again with whatever he makes next. Charlie Brown’s gotta kick that football someday, right?
07] Fisherman’s Friends
Dir: Chris Foggin
Star: Daniel Mays, James Purefoy, Noel Clarke
In recent years, it feels like British cinema has seen an uptick in movies such as Fisherman’s Friends which I would liken more to a blight of glurge. Even if you’ve made the smart life choice to not sit down and watch a single one of these weirdly prevalent and widely-released films, you probably know exactly the kinds I’m talking about. They come to you wrapped in warm, pleasant, British geniality. Sure, they’re extremely flatly shot, very cheap-looking and haphazardly edited – like a Benidorm episode set at home, stretched out to feature-length and mistakenly released to cinemas – but who cares about any of that when they make out to be harmless, cosy, inoffensive nice times, starring aging British mid-level actors who are just charming enough to keep up the pleasant vibes but not so charming that their appearance in one of these things makes it look like they’re slumming it. They make out like they’re just sweet fun quintessentially British movies with themes of unity and love, anodyne teatime pleasantness for UK GOLD loving grandparents.
But what separates such works from, say, Aardman ventures is how, once you strip away the surface pleasantries, they can often be rather ugly, contemptuous and hateful little movies. Once you notice the specific dog-whistles being blown to the aged audience – how such films keep fetishizing a certain golden-age of Britain (which is often conveniently whenever the youth of its protagonists was), how the world today is big and scary, how young people are confusing and selfish, how city people are all craven opportunists with no compassion for Real Britons and have lost touch with common country folk – you can’t stop noticing them and the entire subgenre is poisoned as a result. Unlike Aardman, these types of movies don’t embody British values through sweetness, compassion, and genuine understanding geniality. Rather, they embody British values in the sense that they are snooty, judgemental, actively disdainful and distrustful of newness and outsiders, and carry themselves with a pompous sense of superiority over everyone else.
Fisherman’s Friends, a biopic about the Cornish fisherman who moonlit as an acapella group singing traditional sea shanties and thanks to viral traction managed to secure a major-label record deal and a UK top 10 album, is the most textbook case yet of such a film. Now, to be clear, Fisherman’s Friends is also a bad film on technical and storytelling merits. Its tone wobbles all over the place. Its pace is leaden and stretches onwards for almost two goddamned hours for some reason. The editing is sloppy, some shots drag on too long whilst others are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inserts, and there are multiple blatant continuity errors. None of the cast display much natural chemistry or relaxed charm, which is meant to be a large part of the appeal in such films. Chris Foggin, a former Assistant Director to Richard Ayoade and Edgar Wright taking his second turn in the main director’s chair, somehow manages to make Cornwall look dull, flat and generic despite much of the film functioning as an elaborate “visit Cornwall” ad – he could’ve shot this at any coastal village and frankly had gotten the same results. It’s not in the slightest bit funny.
But what pushes the movie over the edge is that ever-present dog-whistling. The absolute sneering contemptuousness it displays for anybody who lives in a city, especially those middle-to-upper class, depicting them alternately as largely disrespectful youths who need re-educating about the pride and old-fashioned values of Britain as uncritically embodied by both the denizens of Cornwall and the centuries old (often rampantly sexist) shanties they sing, or as cutthroat hostile out-of-touch largely inhuman executives who need to be saved from the tuneless wails of today’s culture by reminding them of where Real Music came from. A distrust and distaste for new technologies and particularly social media despite how important they are to the plot and the lifeless digital photography used by the movie itself. How the film’s few female characters are moaning one-dimensional ninnies, whilst almost all of the male characters are laddish masculine ideals. And the abominable cartoonish hate-sink manner with which it portrays Noel Clarke’s record company executive – incidentally the only major person of colour in the entire movie – and his legendarily awful attempt at an American(?) accent.
So we’re clear, I’m not knocking Fisherman’s Friends for having regressive disagreeable social politics. Rather it’s the disconnect between presentation and content which buries both itself and the subgenre it’s a part of. You can’t present yourself as a sweet lovable well-intentioned trifle of a movie and then go about expressing regressive attitudes to anybody outside of your target audience with a tangible disgust. It makes your movie off-putting, mean, insincere and hypocritical. Although I guess that makes Fisherman’s Friends and its ilk the most honest British films of them all nowadays.
06] Dark Phoenix
Dir: Simon Kinberg
Star: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
I do not remember anything about Dark Phoenix. I didn’t remember anything about Dark Phoenix three days after I saw it at the cinema opening day (inadvertently), I certainly didn’t remember anything about Dark Phoenix one month after I saw it, and I most certainly do not remember anything about Dark Phoenix six months, 86 new release films, and a good 130+ total other films on from it. Actually, that’s not entirely true; every now and again, I remember that bit where Sophie Turner and Michael Fassbender are having a constipated-grimace-off over a helicopter for reasons unclear that was inadvertently hilarious. But other than that, zippo. Bupkiss. Even with it having now been a full decade since I personally saw X-Men: The Last Stand, I can still remember more of that former film than I can of Dark Phoenix. In fact, I had to cycle back to my entry on the film’s initial debut at the Box Office Report, the only time and place I had mentioned the film for more than a few words, in order to see if reading my then piping-fresh take would stimulate the old memory cells. It did not. Here’s what I wrote at the time.
“Aggressively mediocre and interminably dull with a screenplay that’s an empty incoherent mess and dialogue which is the drizzling shits. Simon Kinberg is incontrovertible evidence that White men in Hollywood exclusively fail upwards. I honestly prefer The Last Stand since, in my old age (24 years and 8 months), at least that film is memorably terrible. This is just a less ambitious and slightly-less rickety Fant4stic. Cheap, lifeless, embarrassed of itself, too plodding and lacking in spectacle to work as an action movie, too ineptly written and generically surface-level to work as a character drama.”
Normally, I wouldn’t so blatantly reuse prior assets/article-extracts for a Bottom 10 entry, but I’m really at a loss for what to say about Dark Phoenix specifically, six months removed from viewing. You may be wondering why it is here, then, and not on the Meh-gnificent 7 where likeminded bad films I have otherwise blanked totally on come Listmas time congregate. The answer is twofold. Firstly, because I already put Men in Black: International on that list and I prefer to keep thematically-similar examples on the Meh list to a minimum, try and capture a wide spectrum of mediocrity for a true bland-wich flavour. Mainly, though, it’s to prove a point. Dark Phoenix may have been the most worthless, forgettable, dismal, effortless blockbuster of 2019, but it was by no means the only worthless, forgettable, dismal, effortless blockbuster of 2019. This was endemic of almost every blockbuster which deigned to show its face in 2019.
If 2019 was the year that the movie industry largely seemed to stop trying, then its sorry excuse for a tentpole blockbuster line-up absolutely represented the nadir of the industry’s collective lazy desperation. Shitting out an endless string of barely-films, each and every single one of them badly cribbing from the same “Marvel Cinematic Universe wannabe” sheet, all shot in the same blandly ugly manner, all lacking any coherent theme or point to their existence, all interchangeable with one another aside from the branding arbitrarily slapped onto the finished product, all intentionally lacking even a single memorable image good or bad, and all expecting a round of applause and $500 million worldwide in spite of those facts. Blockbusters are often dumb empty spectacle, I’m under no illusion as to otherwise, but 2019 saw that particular strain of film dumbed down to such an extent as to be entirely worthless but not so much that they became genuinely memorably incompetent. The exact nature of their devolution has been so cynically and insultingly designed as to ensure that viewers can’t even get semi-ironic or interesting fun out of something like Dark Phoenix and, given just how heavily Cats and that initial Sonic the Hedgehog trailer got dogpiled (since those were meme-ably incompetent), I imagine that’s a trend which is going to continue.
So, yeah, this is less about Dark Phoenix, a film I genuinely could not recall any part of right now even with the aid of a detailed picture-and-clip-aided synopsis, and more about blockbusters in general. The arrogance. The laziness. The entitlement. The cynicism. Now, for those of you wondering if I’m including Disney in this representative dunking… check back tomorrow, that’s all I’m gonna say for now.
Tomorrow: it’s The Final Five.
Callum Petch can see him dance away now.