Missed Opportunities seems to be the ongoing trend of my list of the year's worst films. Almost all of the films below displayed a healthy dose of ambition, all of which quickly doused it with silliness, easy answers and a general inability to reach those heights. Many of the filmmakers ended up embarrassing themselves at even postulating greater ambition than they possessed, and yeah, some of the films were already dead on arrival. I suppose, to an extent, someone could regard these picks as mere disappointments and not the worst 2008 had to offer. After all, I didn't see The Love Guru, Bangkok Dangerous, The Spirit, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, Saw V, Fireproof (shiver), Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Disaster Movie, The Eye, Beer for My Horses (shiver, again), whatever movie Dane Cook came out with, Jumper or The Women. However, there are too many good films out there to endure those travesties. I'm happier with listing films that I either expected to be good or films I knew would suck but couldn't resist my own curiosity. The list of "Disappointments" is next on the agenda. (Dis)honorable mentions to the Worst of 2008: Hamlet 2, The Other Boleyn Girl, Diary of the Dead, Eight Miles High, Frontière(s), The Grand, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer, Kiss the Bride, Teeth, Then She Found Me and Shutter.
1. The Happening - dir. M. Night Shyamalan - USA/India - 20th Century Fox
The threat of making a film as atrocious as The Happening has long hovered over M. Night Shyamalan's post-Sixth Sense films; it's been a much stronger prophecy than the fear of nature retaliating against our global ignorance. The Happening is Shyamalan's perfect marriage of high concept and low execution with Mark Wahlberg, at his career worst, as our reluctant "hero," successfully outrunning "the wind" with dopey wife Zooey Deschanel (who must have read the script assuming she was playing a 12-year-old autistic girl). For once, Shyamalan dropped the religious parable that plagued his previous endeavors, but somehow out-shitty-ed Lady in the Water. Bless your heart if you got a couple of barrel laughs out of this debacle; I cannot consider myself one of the lucky folk here.
2. Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild! - dir. Todd Stephens - USA - TLA Releasing
So this is why Proposition 8 passed? Show this to the narrow-minded, and their fears would be confirmed. Under the sheepish guise of "satire," Stephens again reduces the gays to shallow, narcissistic, racist, misogynistic nymphomaniacs. Whereas the original was criminally low-brow and anti-queer, the sequel incorporates a newfound venom, in the form of misanthropic bitchiness, that is sprayed even further than the buckets of lube and fake cum. Take it as a gay-on-gay hate crime or the most telling, unconscious indictment of gay culture, but either way, you come up the loser. [Additional Reading: Forgive Them, Father, For They Are Gay]
3. What We Do Is Secret - dir. Rodger Grossman - USA - PeaceArch
What We Do Is Secret is about as punk rock as Avril Lavigne and, combined with Shane West's limp performance, makes its subject Darby Crash look just about as worthless. It'd be easier to swallow the suggestion that Crash's legacy was unfairly overlooked when Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon the day after Crash's suicide if the film itself had provided a reason why he would have even deserved one. Seeing an assembly-line biopic like this makes Gus Van Sant's work on Milk all the more refreshing. Then again, Harvey Milk makes for a better-suited subject that the lead singer of The Germs. [Additional Reading: The Biopic and the Assembly Line]
4. I've Loved You So Long [Il y a longtemps que je t'aime] - dir. Philippe Claudel - France/Germany - Sony Pictures Classics
With so many of the year's finest films coming from France, the disappointment of I've Loved You So Long stings even harder. It's really just the French equivalent of the abysmal Seven Pounds, no matter how good Kristin Scott Thomas may be. Instead of resting the film on her fine shoulders, which would have been a more effective decision, Claudel resorts to cheap emotional manipulation and both literary and cinematic fumbles. Keeping the secret behind Scott Thomas' killing of her young son until the end, I've Loved You So Long falls face-first into the pits of weepy melodrama, which may have been forgivable if Claudel had paid out on the promises of something richer than this. Other than Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein who plays her sister, every aspect of the film takes the easy road on each of its potential challenges, teasing and baiting its audience to the point of infuriation.
5. Funny Games - dir. Michael Haneke - France/Austria/Germany/UK/Italy/USA - Warner Independent
I didn't really need to see Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his own Funny Games to form an opinion about it. Its existence could have only been justified by proper marketing and distribution, and as that wasn't the case, Funny Games (U.S.) just became an unfortunate act of masturbation and creative stalemate. Making no changes to the original outside of the language (not even to update its Beavis & Butthead references to 2008 or to compensate for the fact Brady Corbet is a lot thinner than the actor who played the "fatty" in the original), the only person certain of Haneke's status of a great filmmaker was himself, and as the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. [Additional Reading: Um, ha ha]
6. Revolutionary Road - dir. Sam Mendes - USA/UK - Paramount Vantage/Warner Bros.
Shying away from the topic of abortion has been one of contemporary cinema's weakest points, but it can become potentially dangerous when the subject is only raised in films set in the past (even the abortion film of the past few years 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in 1987 at the end of the communist rule in Romania). This persists the scary thought that abortion, like electroshock therapy, is a thing of the past. This is not Revolutionary Road's fault of course, as it's rooted in dated source material. However, there's plenty more to condemn the Oscar-baiter for, especially in regards to its depiction of the past. In most cases I can think of, directors lose the essence of their chosen period in time through the (often subconscious) application of the spirit and beliefs of the time they're filming in. Revolutionary Road shares two of the same obvious views of early-to-mid-twentieth century mentality as Clint Eastwood's Changeling. Both films suggest that the time periods on display should be remembered for their poorly developed and outdated views of mental issues (electroshock therapy!) and women, emitting a snobbish air of knowing better now. Eastwood's obsession with Ms. Jolie and her lips allows her to escape the notion that women can't support a family, but Kate Winslet, under the direction of her own husband, isn't given such relief. Like most of her previous roles from Iris Murdoch to the Titanic lady, Winslet plays a woman ahead of her time. Predictably, she becomes victim to her surroundings, lost in mundane suburban life, and when a pregnancy stands in the way of realizing her dreams of Paris with husband Leonardo DiCaprio (and children, I guess, but they're pretty insignificant throughout the film), Mendes loses sight of who Winslet truly is. Beginning the film as an ambitious dreamer, she soon gets lost under Mendes' direction, who doesn't seem convinced that she's actually sane. Enter Michael Shannon. Like J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading, Shannon feels like a last-minute addition to the otherwise lousy film, voicing the disinterest of the audience. Of course, neither Shannon nor Simmons are merely planted; the Coens are too smart for that and Revolutionary Road is based on a novel. However, Shannon, as Kathy Bates' "mentally unstable" son, is the only thing that brings the soggy Revolutionary Road to life, and when he's offscreen, the film returns to being recycled garbage and continues to display the terrible idea that Winslet is a crazywoman.
7. Filth and Wisdom - dir. Madonna - UK - IFC Films
It's as bad as you'd imagine a film directed by Madonna could be. Despite still getting away with success despite no discernible talent, Madonna has spent her entire career pushing buttons, and even if doing so with Filth and Wisdom were the film equivalent of her American Life album, that would have been more memorable than this. Filth and Wisdom isn't just safe, it's downright dull. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the film runs like a music video, set to lead actor Eugene Hutz's insufferable band Gogol Bordello (though Madonna throws a song or two of hers, in addition to one from Britney Spears, in the mix), but you have to assume that Madge didn't take any notes from the directors who crafted her most striking videos (from Chris Cunningham to Mark Romanek). I know this has probably been said by anyone who had the misfortune of watching this, but neither filthy nor wise, Filth and Wisdom could have used shot of both.
8. Cloverfield - dir. Matt Reeves - USA - Paramount
If there's anything to take from Cloverfield (and I don't think there's much), it's that most of us can rest assured that when the apocalypse hits, the douche bags of the world will be the first to perish. Seeing a set of idiots clobbered by a monster and its spider-looking offspring couldn't have been a more joyless affair thanks to Cloverfield's cornucopia of missed opportunities. Resisting saying anything about the digital age that shapes the film itself, Cloverfield asks more of its audience than it does of itself. Those who think the root of the film's problems (or successes) stems from its Breaking the Waves camera technique have neglected to address the film's deepest fault: asking us to give a shit about what's going on.
9. Mamma Mia! - dir. Phyllida Lloyd - USA/UK/Germany - Universal Pictures
I've had a long history with ABBA, one I'm trying not to destroy with my feelings toward Mamma Mia!. As a joke, my cousin Jen asked for ABBA Gold for her birthday one year, gravely underestimating the infectious pop brilliance of the Swedish quartet and passing her love onto me; to this day, she's still embarrassed that she got on her high school history teacher's good side in knowing the sight of Napoleon's final battle thanks to ABBA. Around my first year of being an undergraduate, ABBA came back into my life. At the time, I was predictably self-serious and brushed my admiration off as irony. When false irony transformed itself to genuine admiration, I knew I could never go back. In theory, Mamma Mia! the musical should have been perfection, but even the friends of mine who felt the same about ABBA as I did remarked that the stage production was pretty lousy. So what better way to improve upon the musical's imperfections than to make it into a big Hollywood production (starring Meryl Streep no less)? I've never been so wrong. Hiring a cast who, other than Christine Baranski, should never be heard singing outside of a Tuesday night karaoke pub was the film's first mistake, but it's most crippling one comes from Phyllida Lloyd. A trained theatre director, Lloyd displays no visual flair, making the film's beautiful Greek landscape look as flat as Pierce Brosnan's voice sounds. They must have run out of money at some point during pre-production, because it looks as though they hired some sap who recorded himself doing a rendition of "Single Ladies" on YouTube as their choreographer. There are moments where I tried not to scream, "put a prop in that bitch's hand!" particularly when Streep looked as unremarkable as she sounded singing "The Winner Takes It All" to Brosnan, her hands awkwardly grasping for something that obviously wasn't there. Using songs like fucking in a porno, Mamma Mia! really is more From Justin to Kelly than it would like to think. It uses every opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, to throw as many ABBA songs into the production as possible. An orgy of ABBA music would have been fine in my book, but after seeing Julie Walters crawl on a roof chasing Stellan Skarsgård while singing "Take a Chance on Me," the shame of liking pop music once again shivered down my spine.
10. The Unknown Woman [La sconosciuta] - dir. Giuseppe Tornatore - Italy/France - Outsider Pictures
A sleazy, Eurotrash Hitchcockian thriller like The Unknown Woman would have been a helluva movie if Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven or Dario Argento would have made it thirty years ago. As it stands, at the helm of cheap sentimentalist Giuseppe Tornatore, it's an oversaturated melodrama that does nothing more than continue the director's romanticized rape fantasy he begun with Malèna. If you believe Tornatore actually sympathizes with his tragic beauties Xenia Rappoport or Monica Bellucci, ask yourself why he seems more at ease when they're being violated than when they're supposed to be redeemed. If anything is going to make you reconsider liking that dreadful Cinema Paradiso, I can think of nothing better than The Unknown Woman.
11. Seven Pounds - dir. Gabriele Muccino - USA - Sony Pictures
Honestly, Seven Pounds only missed the Bottom 10 because audiences (or at least critics) have seen through its ridiculousness more than they have with I've Loved You So Long. Both films do their best at making Kristin Scott Thomas and Will Smith look like assholes, only to expose their true (good) nature in a last-minute revelation. I've Loved You So Long lets Scott Thomas off the hook, but Seven Pounds does worse; it depicts Smith as a fucking saint. I hesitate in calling the climax of Seven Pounds a "twist," as every detail of it is so dreadfully obvious you almost doubt the film could be so stupid. This trick is responsible for me enduring my first Will Smith film since Men in Black in its entirety, and I'm the worse for it. I'm sorry, Rosario Dawson.
12. Nights and Weekends - dir. Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig - USA - IFC Films
Joe Swanberg's films are to post-college twentysomethings what Another Gay Sequel is to gay men. The films' annoyances begin to exist outside of themselves in ways neither filmmaker intended, crafting a critical, wholly negative depiction of the set of people it (sort of) sympathizes with. His obsession with sex and inclination to film himself and frequent "actress" (and co-director here) Gerwig in the nude are the least of Swanberg's problems. Instead, he reduces the inevitable soul-searching of the post-college twentysomething to the irritating whining of bratty children. With Nights and Weekends, redundancy becomes Swanberg's only gift as he gets even further away from saying anything of value about his generation. [Additional Reading: You Move Me / Like Music]
13. Gutterballs - dir. Ryan Nicholson - Canada - TLA Releasing
Giving a camera to a guy who obviously found Irréversible funny was probably a bad move. In a "throw-back" to cheesy, sleazy slasher films of the past, writer/director Nicholson gathers together a group of worthless teenagers for a competitive, after-hours bowling match which ends in grotesque bloodshed. To his credit, Nicholson assembled a talented bunch of make-up artists and special effect artists, but impressive, low-budget gore don't impress me much and doesn't excuse the fact that Nicholson has no idea what he's doing. When it's clear that the bowling match is playing second fiddle to the sex and death, Nicholson struggles for ways to make anything plausible even for someone willing to allow an air of disbelief. The killer gets his own listing on the players' scoreboards, with skulls to mark his "strikes," which confuses and infuriates both teams, who (apparently) aren't bowling next to one another. However, considering the bowling alley is closed and bowling isn't exactly a quiet sport, the characters refuse to believe that it's simply a glitch in the system. Nicholson is particularly ill at ease in getting the victims away from the game itself (even though there's very little bowling going on anyway), unable to elicit a certain tongue-in-cheek-ness over inability. It's too easy to criticize the film for its moral bankruptcy (there's a fifteen-minute rape scene that begins with a nod to The Accused and ends with a bowling pin shoved in a girl's vagina), but when nastiness takes precedent over skill, you're going to find something as unclever and lazy as Gutterballs.
14. The Wackness - dir. Jonathan Levine - USA - Sony Pictures Classics
There isn't a whole lot to say about The Wackness, a familiar and tired addition to the coming-of-age genre. It's overly precious and painfully insincere. For every breakout-of-Sundance hit like Little Miss Sunshine or Juno, you have four Wacknesses or Hamlet 2s. Diablo Cody, where are you? [Additional Reading: Kill the Teenagers for Their Insecurities]
15. City of Men [Cidade dos Homens] - dir. Paolo Morelli - Brazil - Miramax
You're going to have to ask someone else what City of Men has to do with Fernando Meirelles' dazzling City of God. It's my understanding that Men begins where the television show, of the same name and spun-off from God, left off, but I'm still unsure whether any of the characters in Men were even a part of God. Narrow in perspective and dull in its visual landscape, City of Men is, at heart, a pedestrian crime flick which only saw the light of day because of its infinitely more impressive predecessor.
16. Donkey Punch - dir. Oliver Blackburn - UK - Magnet Releasing
Though I don't care for Cabin Fever or any of the Hostel films, Eli Roth certainly knew what he was doing in lining despicable characters up to the firing squad for the sake of the audience's enjoyment. Donkey Punch follows Cloverfield and Gutterballs in this year's poor tradition, which only confirms Roth as a better filmmaker than I may have given him credit for. A duo of slovenly British lasses, with their dullard good girl best friend, meet a quartet of tools on holiday, only for one of them to see her demise in the form of the title's sexual tactic. Think of it as I Know What You Morons Did Last Summer on the Yacht. If the film weren't despicable on its own, the fact that the filmmakers bought the rights to a good soundtrack, which includes The Knife and Peter Bjorn and John, makes Donkey Punch even worse.
17. Garden Party - dir. Jason Freeland - USA - Roadside Attractions
Poor Vinessa Shaw will never catch a break. She's always positioned herself at the brink of success and has failed every single time. Garden Party is just another lousy career move for the actress. The film falls under the sadly common umbrella of prudish films about the sex industry; as is typical of this type of film, the only flesh you'll encounter is from an extra. In examining the cycles of porn in contemporary Los Angeles, Freeland comes up short in finding anything useful or fresh to say about the industry.
18. Drillbit Taylor - dir. Steven Brill - USA - Paramount
Judd Apatow's hit-maker status was the only reason Drillbit Taylor, which was co-written by Seth Rogen, surfaced. Basically, it's just Superbad for the younger set with a laughless Owen Wilson playing bodyguard to two doofus high school freshmen. Try not to root for the bullies.
19. Humboldt County - dir. Darren Grodsky, Danny Jacobs - USA - Magnolia
Assembling an impressive cast (which includes Frances Conroy, Fairuza Balk, Brad Dourif, Peter Bogdanovich and Chris Messina) is half the battle; getting them to overcome the tired, Screenwriting 101 script is another. With a shaky central performance from Jeremy Strong, Grodsky and Jacobs keep their audience at least two steps ahead of Strong's expected self-discovery after being abandoned by a one-night-stand (Balk) and left with her bohemian family.
20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - dir. Steven Spielberg - USA - Paramount
The episode of South Park where Spielberg and George Lucas rape Indiana Jones like Jodie Foster in The Accused (hey, two references in one post!) and Ned Beatty in Deliverance says more than I possibly could.