Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Worst Films of the Decade: 20 - 11

This list features the very worst films that I endured during the past decade. Some of them are here because they are simply incompetent on every level, while others are bad films made by talented people. It took me a long time to settle on this group, and films that just about escaped my final condemnation include: National Security; Hannibal; Baise Moi; Blindness; Tideland; The Sweetest Thing; Alexander; Pearl Harbour; The Life of David Gale; The Rules of Attraction; Northfork; Pay it Forward; The Cell; Dreamcatcher; Get Rich or Die Tryin'; It's All About Love; 15 Minutes. A special mention should also go to a film called Crack Willow, which is one of the worst films I have ever seen. It escapes the list because it has not yet received distribution, and if sanity prevails, it never will.

Now, let's take a look at what I really hated in the past ten years.

20 – Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)
So we begin our countdown with the most successful film in British box-office history; I have rarely felt so out of touch with the whims of the mass cinema audience. I don't really care if a film I dislike makes a huge amount of money, but I do care when a film as horribly made as Mamma Mia! succeeds. The picture is an embarrassment, featuring actors who can't sing (Pierce Brosnan's scenes are painful), a slapdash storyline that only exists as an excuse to showcase ABBA tunes, dreadful dance sequences, and utterly inept direction from Phyllida Lloyd. She has never made a film before, and it shows. Lloyd can't even match the lighting from one shot to the next – we're talking about basic levels of competence here. Does the audience for Mamma Mia! care, though? They flocked to it again and again, seemingly unbothered by the lack of professionalism on show. I just don't understand it.

19 – The Wicker Man (Neil Labute, 2006)
The world didn't need a remake of The Wicker Man, and when the world saw Neil Labute's misguided version, they needed it even less. This being a Labute film, the island at the centre of the mystery is now a matriarchy run by Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn), which gives Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) ample opportunity to call them all bitches and punch them in the face – nice one, Neil! Actually, the one advantage The Wicker Man has over most of the films on this list is its undeniable entertainment value. Labute's ludicrous script is partly responsible for that, but Nicolas Cage is the man who takes this terrible film into the realm of high farce. From hilarious line readings like "Killing me won't bring back your God damn honey!" or "How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned?" to the surreal sight of Cage running through the forest dressed as a bear; this is a bad performance for the ages.

18 – The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 2003)
When it first appeared in 1999, The Matrix appeared to mark the Wachowski brothers – who had made their debut with the impressive Bound – as filmmakers to watch. Ten years and three films later, it's hard to know what to make of them. 2003 was the "Year of The Matrix", with two sequels being released within months of each other, but while The Matrix was such a tight, clever and inventive movie, these sequels are bloated beyond recognition. Everything is too big and overextended (why have Neo fight one Agent Smith when he can fight 100?), and the script is weighed down by a great deal of pompous philosophising and incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo. No attention is paid to the characterisations or the clarity of the plotting, and the films get louder and less interesting as they drag themselves towards the massively anticlimactic ending. Plenty of other sequels in this decade mistook scale and a hefty visual effects budget for quality, but the sense of rich potential being squandered is what earns this hellish double-bill a place on the list.

17 – Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003)
There's only one person involved in Love Actually who comes out of the dismal project with reputation intact. As the wife of a straying husband, Emma Thompson gives a performance of great sensitivity that deserves to be part of a better movie. Her scenes are the only ones in Love Actually that feel real – everything else reeks of calculation. In his directorial debut, Richard Curtis has obviously set out to make the ultimate Christmas romantic comedy. Just throw in some awkward banter here, a touch of empty pathos there, a bit of Hugh Grant dancing, a dash of Bill Nighy being Bill Nighy, a few celebrity cameos – and voila! – a soulless Christmas package that barely contains a single honest moment. Essentially, Love Actually has eight or nine different stories jostling for the spotlight, and Curtis can't find an easy balance to his picture, clumsily cutting from one moment of contrived uplift to one of unearned emotion, and ending up with an overlong, unbalanced mess. Still, at least it's upfront about its intentions; "This is shit, isn't it" an aged rocker says to his manager, "Yep, solid gold shit, maestro" the beaming manager replies.

16 – Ma mère (Christophe Honoré, 2004)
This is the kind of prurient nonsense that gives French cinema a bad name. Christophe Honoré's depiction of an overly close relationship between a mother (Isabelle Huppert) and son (Louis Garrel) is so desperate to shock us, but its attempts to do so just feel childish and tiresome. The film as a whole is a desperately dull slog, peopled by hollow characters who seem to lack any convincing inner life. The dialogue is laughable ("I don't want your love unless you know I am repulsive" the mother tells her son) and some scenes, like Garrel masturbating over his mother's corpse, are beyond absurd. I felt sorry for Huppert, who throws herself into the role with her customary conviction for scant reward. She has appeared in a few dodgy films over the years, but surely she felt some kind of nadir was being reached when she was sticking her finger up Garrel's arse and sniffing the results.

15 – The Cat in the Hat (Bo Welch, 2003)
Hollywood has long struggled with the problem of Dr Seuss. How do you translate the whimsical magic of his books to the screen? Following the tepid mess that was How The Grinch Stole Christmas, they should have been aware that covering a comic in a ton of makeup and asking him to overact wildly wasn't the answer to that particular conundrum, but they didn't learn, and so we have The Cat in the Hat. It is an abomination, almost unwatchable, with some of the most garish production design you'll ever seen and a screenplay that drains the charm from its source material to replace it with dull slapstick and innuendo. But the chief culprit here is Mike Myers, whose performance as The Cat is a colossal misjudgement from top to bottom, with his grating accent, sneering attitude and jokes that are either cripplingly unfunny or completely inappropriate (mostly both). Often it feels as if he's simply spouting one-liners that failed to make the cut in his Austin Powers films, and in every respect, his Cat is the most repellent character imaginable for a children's film. Myers had a very bad decade in front of the camera, and this truly horrible movie just about edges out The Love Guru for a spot on the list, although there's not much between them.

14 – Outlaw (Nick Love, 2007)
If his amusingly deluded DVD commentary is anything to go by, Nick Love believes that this film marked his maturation as a filmmaker. No longer was he simply making inconsequential films about cockney geezers; this was his state of the nation picture, it had "stories in there and stuff", and it failed because "people who go to the cinema these days don't wanna fink". Sorry to break it to you, Nick, but Outlaw is a failure because it's every bit as shoddy, unrealistic and empty as your previous films. It is the story of ordinary men who decide to take justice into their own hands when they feel the police and government are no longer protecting them, and while it makes a gesture towards condemning their actions, it actually revels in the violence the characters get mixed up in. Love's direction is all over the place, his visuals are murky and his script is riddled with banality and clichés, but it's the moral ugliness of the film that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. One wonders what the capable cast (with the exception of the incapable Danny Dyer) were thinking when they signed up for this garbage. Love may have a point about the failings of the police force and the dangers the public face every day, but films like Outlaw really don't help matters.

13 – Freddy Got Fingered (Tom Green, 2001)
Tom Green's brief flirtation with cinema was thankfully ended with this baffling gross-out comedy. He plays unappealing man-child Gord, whose attempts to move out of the parental home and find a job lead him into all manner of odd scenarios. These include sticking bits of meat to his face, cutting a newborn's umbilical cord with his teeth and swinging it around the room, wearing the bloody carcass of a deer, and wanking an elephant that then ejaculates all over Rip Torn. The problem with all of these set-pieces is not that they are offensive or immature; it's simply the fact that Green is not a very funny performer. Everything he does is pitched at the same manic level, as if he's shouting "Look at me!" in every scene, and you just sit there waiting for each interminable scene to end so he can go off an do some other stupid thing. As Green is also the director of Freddy Got Fingered, there's nobody around to keep Green the performer in check, and so he continues to indulge himself for ninety long minutes at our expense.

12 – The Spirit (Frank Miller, 2008)
The work of Frank Miller has made a huge impact on cinema in this decade, with adaptations of his Sin City and 300 being major hits, and his work on the Batman comic books being a huge influence on Christopher Nolan's acclaimed films. Unfortunately, the respect Hollywood had for him was enough to persuade somebody that he should be allowed to direct his own feature, and hopefully the person who made that decision is currently looking for a new line of work. Miller's adaptation of Will Eisner's The Spirit is one of the most amateurishly directed mainstream films I've ever seen. He has no sense of timing, composition, lighting or movement; he directs a number of actors to the worst performances of their careers (Samuel L Jackson) while others stand around with little purpose (most of the female cast). The film makes no sense on any level and it is an astonishingly ugly creation, using a similar technique to Robert Rodriguez's Sin City but making every shot look messy and unfocused. Frankly, it's amazing that nobody stepped in at any point to wrestle the camera from Miller's grasp, and to spare us all this irredeemable film.

11 – Norbit (Brian Robbins, 2007)
Every couple of years Eddie Murphy makes a film choice that seems to be motivated by something more than a paycheque, and us fans of this hugely talented comic are briefly allowed to hope that he's about to turn his career around. Murphy ended the 90's with Steve Martin's terrific Bowfinger, which was exactly the role he needed at that time, but his great performance in that film only made the following years (Dr Dolittle 2, Pluto Nash, Showtime, The Haunted Mansion) even harder to bear. In 2006, Murphy made Dreamgirls, which was far from a great film, but it did contain a great role, and Murphy earned an Oscar nomination for it. Even as the ceremony approached, however, another self-destructive Murphy disaster was already appearing on the horizon. In Norbit, Murphy plays the nerdish title character, his repulsive wife, and an elderly Chinese man, which gives him plenty of opportunities to indulge his passions; covering himself in latex, and making lots of lazy, racist jokes. Rick Baker's makeup work is – as ever – extraordinary, but to what purpose? Norbit is a criminally awful affair, shot in a crude fashion and never aiming higher than the most base levels of humour. Murphy may yet find another worthy role that will lift his career out of its current rut, but what would he follow it with? Trying to second-guess the thought process of a man who can sign up for Dreamgirls and Norbit simultaneously has become an impossible task.

See the next ten here.