So many to pick from, so little time. And hallowed critics’ tradition says you only list ten worst movies every year. This year we could probably do more, but we’ll hold it to ten. The picks are in reverse order, with tenth being the least offensive and first being the worst movie of the year, in this humble critic’s opinion.
10. It would be easy to dismiss “Hope Springs” as a Lifetime movie with a feature film cast. In reality, however, a Lifetime movie would probably get the job done with greater economy. You can almost hear the pitch: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play an unhappily married aging couple who go to Steve Carell for marriage counseling in New England. Therapy scenes were cliché years ago and only lazy writers do them now. TV talks and movies do. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin a movie shouldn’t be dialogue-driven, and this movie talks us to death. “Hope Springs” was written by Vanessa Taylor, a TV writer whose roots are showing. Dialogue scenes set in Carell’s office go on for ten pages at a stretch without getting anything done while actual plot developments tend to come out of nowhere. Considering the eminence of the cast, the character development, or lack thereof, is frustrating. Streep’s character is a two-dimensional frustrated housewife straight from Lifetime central casting while Jones remains an enigma throughout. The endless dialogue contributes surprisingly little. When Jones accuses Carell of being smug, you may tend to agree with him.
9. Ninth place could actually be first in terms of biggest disappointment, given what fans were hoping for. We’re not supposed to call “Prometheus” an “Alien” prequel, but that bit of marketing puffery only highlights the delusions of grandeur Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise seems to suffer from. After a thoroughly unnecessary prologue (that the movie never actually comes back to or explains), “Prometheus” takes us to Scotland in the late 21st century, where scientists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green have just found the latest in a series of related cave paintings that make it absolutely clear that human evolution was influenced by advanced beings from another world.
More than forty years after “2001: A Space Odyssey” and we’re still retreading “Chariots of the Gods?” But in fact Kubrick’s masterpiece “2001” casts a long shadow over this high-tech but unimaginative retread. There are attempts at high-falutin’ philosophical dialogue of the “where-did-we-come-from” and “is-there-a-God” variety, but the script, by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts isn’t up to the challenge and doesn’t answer the questions. Once on the alien world we see a great big, familiar-looking, horseshoe-shaped alien spaceship but dear God don’t call this a prequel to “Alien.” The movie rapidly deteriorates into “Forbidden Planet” with fake, alien tentacles liberally slathered with K-Y. They’ll make you jump if you’ve ponied up the extra money for 3D, but trust me, you’ve seen this sort of thing before. And it is too an “Alien” prequel.
8. There’s a great movie to be made in the story of the Tuskegee Airman, an all-African American squadron of fighter pilots in World War II. “Red Tails” isn’t it. The story of heroic young pilots, fighting the Luftwafte on one hand, and racial prejudice from their own superiors and the media on the other, is well-worth telling. And the drama inherent in the situation is so obvious that you wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to fashion a decent screenplay. This script stinks. A talented cast, including David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds and Andre Royo, makes what they can out of it. They certainly have little enough to work with.
7. Andrea Arnold’s completely unnecessary remake of “Wuthering Heights” does so many things wrong it almost deserves an award for wrong turns. This painfully slow adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel clocks in at two hours and nine minutes, and if it only felt that long you’d count yourself lucky. The absolute lack of chemistry between Kaya Scodelario as Catherine and James Howson as Heathcliff is one of the reasons there’s no romance whatsoever here. Arnold’s screenplay can’t find a redeemable characteristic in any of its characters. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is not just bleak—it’s murky. Some scenes are actually difficult to see. The color has been bleached to near black and white in places but if you want “Wuthering Heights” in black and white, they made that version in 1939. It was photographed by Gregg Toland, who also photographed “Citizen Kane,” and it looked a lot better. The new version was photographed with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is actually less wide screen than the 1939 version, and no, I have no idea why. Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer play Heathcliff and Catherine as teenagers. They bear no resemblance to Scodelario and Howson.
6. The “Ice Age” movies are about extinct species, and the frenetic fourth installment provides evidence that this franchise should at least be on the endangered list. What passes for a plot in “Ice Age: Continental Drift” could have been pulled at random from a jar of clichés. There may not be an original thought involved, but there is plenty of action. There’s slipping, sliding and falling across an endless landscape of jagged rocks and ice floes. But there’s surprisingly little exuberance for all the antic chaos. It’s too damn calculated, like scheduling a riot. What we’re left with is a movie in need of Ritalin. Crass, calculated and completely cookie cutter, “Ice Age: Continental Drift” is evidence of a franchise left behind by evolution.
5. Sometimes the words “what a mess” just seem so inadequate. “Looper” is a derivative science fiction thriller that fails to thrill, while ineffectively navigating plot holes you could drive a truck through. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis actually play the same character at different ages. I know—peas in a pod, right? But since nothing else works in this hodgepodge of ideas stolen from better movies, they may be hoping we won’t notice. Jeff Daniels and Emily Blunt muddle through supporting roles, probably wondering how they got themselves into this. Ms. Blunt unnecessarily affects a southern accent, but at this point, why not?
4. The scariest moment in “Paranormal Activity 4” was when I thought I’d lost my car keys. During the last five minutes, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman finally seem to remember that they’re making a horror movie and audience members who haven’t nodded off by then may be rudely awakened by some genuine screams. Unfortunately, what leads up to it is interminable. Although 3D takes the lion’s share of criticism these days for being an anti-cinematic gimmick that takes the audience out of the movie, for my money the “found footage” device is by far the worst offender. Audiences have been used to traditional cinematic technique for well over a century and tend to lose sight of it in favor of getting lost in the story. Found footage, which requires sometimes ludicrous extremes to find reasons for a camera to be present, immediately reminds the audience they’re watching a movie.
3. There’s an old Hollywood adage that you can imitate Hitchcock, but you can’t remake him. The same may be true of Arnold Schwarzenegger. This summer’s remake of “Total Recall” is essentially a paler, rainier imitation of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 kitsch classic. A distinctly humorless, derivative and ultimately dull PG-13 vehicle for husband/wife team director Len Wiseman and leading lady Kate Beckinsale, this remakes looks painfully anemic next to Vehoeven’s cheerfully gory original. The production design is by-the-numbers “Blade Runner” 101, and while appropriate, is hardly original. Colin Farrell, duped into taking the role originally played by Schwarzenegger, is a better actor than Schwarzenegger ever wanted to be, but that’s hardly the point. The remake is redolent with references to the original, such as a three-breasted prostitute, that will make those who have seen the original version long for it, and be completely lost on those who haven’t.
2. “Arbitrage,” a trite, cliché-riddled morality play that beats the audience into submission like a day-long Puritan sermon, seems to take place in a parallel universe or a galaxy far, far away. This is the directorial debut of Nicholas Jarecki, who also wrote the script, and based on that his perception of reality would appear to resemble the Land of Oz. The Munchkins and flying monkeys have taken over. Richard Gere clearly doesn’t want his main character to be two-dimensional, but the problem is the character is two-dimensional. The enigmatic indie darling Brit Marling provides the closest thing this movie has to an interesting character. It would be fascinating to see what she could do with a movie that isn’t someone’s directorial debut. As for the title, the word “arbitrage” refers to the simultaneous purchase in one market and sale in another of a security or commodity in hopes of making a profit based on the price differences in the two markets. Don’t worry about it. The word is not used in a sentence once in the entire movie.
1. Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” gets sole screenplay credit on the movie adaptation. And he deserves a lot of the blame for this lousy adaptation of his own bestseller. All the imaginative stuff for the most part’s been pitched and what’s left is an illogical, muddled mess. What little that does make sense isn’t particularly good—this is a stock, paint-by-numbers vampire movie that wouldn’t cut it as an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Director Timur Bekmanbetov’s technique is overly showy and frenetic. This is cinematic ADD. The 3D post-conversion stinks and there’s no excuse for that at this point in time. As to Benjamin Walker in the title role, compared to Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” he might as well be wearing a fake beard for a Presidents Day sale at a used car dealership.