Thursday, June 20, 2024

Beneath the Screen of the Ultra-Critics Presents: The Worst of the Decade

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Now that 2019 is drawing to a close, critics everywhere are drafting their lists of the best, and worst, of the decade. As some of you may know Thad, Kara, and I host a little podcast called Beneath the Screen of the Ultra-Critics in which we ramble on about one random topic film-related or another.  We’ve been tasked by the editors to toss our hat into the feral ring of “Best and Worst of the Decade”. We’ve split the list into two, this article being The Worst, with another article listing The Best to be posted tomorrow (we wanted to end the year and decade on a high note).

But before we start I feel it is important to set out certain facts about how the list was curated.

The list was compiled by the three of us from a massive list of movies we have seen, remembered, and some even forgotten. Each movie required at least a two-thirds majority to make it on the final list. Additionally, we left off most foreign and obscure films, to make the list more accessible. 

A common misconception about bad movies is that they must be bad both from a narrative angle and a technical angle. This is a fallacy. Great movies need not be perfect which follows that bad movies need not be ugly or incompetently made. Worst Of lists must be looked at differently than Best Of. Worst Of lists are a time to vent and say a final piece about the precious time wasted at the multiplex by megacorporations who know, can, and have done better. 

Occasionally there might be a film not from a major studio. A film whose badness is mentioned because it exceeded the layman’s expectations and flung itself into bizarre and nonsensical realms which have to be seen to believed. Those will be easy to spot. But most are just bad.


10. Hell or High Water (2016) – Jeremiah

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

I have no doubt that David Mackenzie has seen many Westerns. And I know Taylor Sheridan has worked with Natives and Indigenous peoples both on and off the reservation. But one seems to have missed the underlying horror of the genre while the other seems to have been so wrapped up in what he was trying to say that neither took a step back to fully realize how tone-deaf and messy the finished product was. Which is a shame because the plot about two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) robbing banks to pay off a loan and having no one but the Marshalls be mad about it is quite frankly too beautiful to be believed.

But it’s wrapped up in a movie filled with scenes such as the younger brother Tanner in a casino explaining to a Native man both the meaning of the word “Comanche” and what being part of a tribe “means”. Scenes where the Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) taunts his Native partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) with racial slurs even though Alberto repeatedly tells him how offensive he finds it.

These moments overwhelm any and all good that might be found within the movie. Hell or Highwater is one of those rare movies where I agree with the politics, the themes, but I was disgusted by the execution that in the end, it fails to matter. There’s a great movie within the movie we got, it’s just a shame the movie we got was so misguided and utterly offensive.


9. Cowboy & Aliens (2011) – Kara

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

I was obsessed with this movie. The trailers were cryptic teasers, the cast was excellent, the cinematography looked beautiful. My grandfather is a Western addict and I eternally hope the genre can be rescued from the dustbin of cinema history because there is some great potential still there. This, I thought, might just be the moment. I thought I was about to see The Man With No Name encounter the Nostromo: a dark, brooding meditation on the nature of Manifest Destiny, colonialism, and the American identity. 

I was so excited that I went to the earliest showing opening night. 

And the film got me. It suckered me in through the entire, dialogue-less opening. And then the movie remembered that this was summer and we needed giant explosions and no one really likes Westerns anyway, apparently, and the whole thing fell apart.  The film rummaged through the pile of stereotypes people think they know about Westerns and then assembled them in some kind of Frankenstein order to create characters and plots. 

My most vivid memory of the film was thinking about how bad and fake Olivia Wilde’s makeup looked and then finding out it was fine because she was a space alien. But like, a hot one, right? Right.


8. The Identical (2014) – Thad

Image courtesy of Freestyle Releasing

You could be forgiven for not realizing that The Identical is a kind of propaganda movie. For me, this movie was a peek into what folks have to tell themselves in order to feel like America and Evangelical Christianity are absolutely fine and always have been. Off-kilter and hollow and familiar in a way I find unsettling. 

For one, there’s the whitewashed cheery Americana illusion of an integrated past (spanning the far too clean Dust Bowl era, shot in black & white for no good reason, to the ‘70s… I think?) and racism as something that only cranky ol’ bad people do. Second, there’s a consistent undercurrent of a particular Evangelical fascination/obsession with Jewish folks and especially with Israel. This movie spans several decades of Knockoff Elvis’s long lost twin brother’s life and the only historical event called out, in particular, is the Six-Day War. There’s a Jewish mechanic who makes sure to mention that he’s Jewish, played by Cypher from The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano. Also, the main character’s birth mother turns out to have been Jewish, revealed long after her death, which means that Knockoff Elvis’s long lost twin brother and also Knockoff Elvis himself are both Jewish AND Christian! How about that?

It’s a mishmash of a movie that commits to nothing and does things just because. Father (Ray Liotta) and son (Blake Rayne) clash, but not that bad. Son rebels, but not in an especially rebellious way. Dad seems to die mid-argument with son, but it’s only a mild heart attack and it’s actually all fine. Blake Rayne seems like he could have charisma one day, but that may just be because his features are striking in a way that reminds me of a young Brendan Frasier.


7. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) – Jeremiah

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

There are two things I remember about Michael Bay’s last Transformers movie. One is Isabella Merced, the young girl who played somewhat of a role as Izabella, because, of course, that’s her name. Merced went on to do Instant Family, a surprisingly moving and emotional drama, and Dora the Explorer, a delightfully kooky and surreal kids film.

The second being my wife becoming incensed when she saw Gothic architecture in scenes meant to be set in Medieval times. “That can’t possibly matter in a Michael Bay movie,” I assured her. Seconds later she said the same thing to me as I became furious at some other stupid little thing. That is all I remember.

Ooh! According to Wikipedia it also had Stanley Tucci as Merlin. I don’t remember that either.


6. Atlas Shrugged (2011) – Thad

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

There is so very little to talk about with regard to Atlas Shrugged, either the first film or the series as a whole… or the book itself, really. Listen: I have read Gravity’s Rainbow, okay? And I like it. I don’t think that makes me better than you, I just mention it for comparison because I never finished reading the novel Atlas Shrugged. It defeated me. It was just the slowest and boring-ass worst. Probably only got as far as the first movie covered, give or take. Handy, that.

If you want a synopsis: it’s about super science train metal and how the “guv’ment” is bad and the world is only good because of Capitalists. Blegh.

So what kind of propaganda movie is Atlas Shrugged? A failed one. A bad adaptation of a popular (but also bad) propaganda novel. It’s boring, it looks cheap, and I hear-tell the sequels kept on absolutely nobody. No consistent director, no consistent cast: just the producers and a bullheaded will to adapt a book that told them they were great. The first film (and, I presume, the rest) is accidentally a perfect monument to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: a tepid mess that exists only because folks with too much money and not enough self-awareness decided it HAD to.


5. Ready Player One (2018) – Jeremiah

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Nostalgia reached its nadir with Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Adapted from the novel by Ernest Kline, the film is a love letter to fandoms and gamers alike. It ultimately fails because it cares more about showing its own street cred than engaging us with any kind of a story. Ready Player One is the type of movie where just mentioning the name or title of a beloved franchise counts as a reference and thus makes it all worthwhile.

More than anything Spielberg shows the folly of modern fandoms. The folly is that they care more about how the stories and characters make them feel than bothering to engage with the art itself. The climax of the movie takes place in the Oasis, the film’s version of the internet, where players can be anyone or anything they choose to be. Our heroes must band together and battle the evil mega-corporation. We see a vast expanse of avatars such as Speed Racer, Godzilla, and the Iron Giant.

But Fandom doesn’t care about the things they propose to care about; they’ve erased the author and replaced the intent with their own psyche and insecurities. Ready Player One showed once and for all the massive failings of fandoms: the inability to intellectually and emotionally engage with the character or story beyond its surface. Beyond that, the film is yet another story where the woman, Sam (Olivia Cook) has the backstory and motivation befitting a hero is instead the love interest who “inspires” the hero, Wade (Ty Sheridan).


4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Kara

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Lord of the Rings was one of the most epic multi-film stories ever put to celluloid. I watched the extended editions in one 12 hour sitting. I made my first friend after I moved states by quoting Gollum riddles at her. I can name all thirteen dwarves and tell you how they’re related and little pieces about their personalities. I love this book. I love Tolkien.

I hated this movie.

It’s not the performances. Martin Freeman is an inspired choice for Bilbo, Ian McKellan turns out, despite the viral video of him, in tears, stating that this wasn’t why he became an actor, a great performance. It’s the padding. The stretching. The grotesque special effects for the sole purpose of special effects, the total lack of understanding of what the story was trying to be, shoehorning in plot points and love stories that didn’t exist; not to create a better story for the film – but a longer one. Yanking elements from The Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, and insist that you HAD to watch these three terrible, terrible movies to truly understand the much better movies made a decade ago. There’s no gentle humor, or cleverness, or sense of small adventure–everything has to be epic, explosions, battles. I found myself periodically checking out, much as I did in the Transformers movies. I ate an entire large tub of popcorn with the methodical precision of a machine.

I felt tortured. 


3. Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) – Thad

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

This movie is gross. Not in a Cronenberg way; I love Cronenberg. No, this movie is gross because it is blatantly a propaganda movie for American Fascism.

I knew everything I needed to know about this movie when one of its opening scenes involved a crane shot over a bomb blast crime scene in the Texas desert dramatically revealed… Muslim prayer rugs. Or at least I thought that was all I needed to know. Then I was treated to a scene of suicide bombers attacking a Kansas City department store. The plot is right-wing Facebook conspiracies come to life: Mexican drug cartels are smuggling jihadi terrorists into America. Are you a Bad Enough Dude to murder people with guns and drone strikes until the plot stops moving? Terrorist attacks happened in America, so Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro have carte blanche to war crime their way through as many international laws and Mexican cops as they need to GET THE JOB DONE.

It is a shame to see legitimately talented people bring this trash to life. We absorb ideas through media representation. And those representations are so often damagingly wrong. Think about the fact that in January 2019 Donald Trump falsely claiming Border Patrol were finding scary Muslim prayer rugs out in the Texas desert.

It is irresponsible that a movie like this exists. I don’t want it banned; I just want people to be better than this and we have a LONG way to go to get there from here.


2. Suicide Squad (2016) – Kara

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

David Ayer’s Suicide Squad suffers from the same problem many tentpole movies do–the CGI sequences and the release date were both well into the process long before the script was. The movie is hodgepodged together, too many characters and intros crammed onto the screen. Even the color palette is baffling because “muddy neon” was not something I ever wanted.

Margot Robbie gives, as usual, a fun performance and Will Smith seems to be attempting to channel his charm from 1997, it’s just a lackluster product that’s trying to ride the coattails of Guardians of the Galaxy, only gritty, only PG-13 gritty, so like, not too gritty. The clear visual and even sound references to GotG (esp using throwback songs in the trailers) is just naked desperation, trying to pull audiences is based on the fact they liked a similar-ish movie by a different studio in a different creative universe. 

What really crushed me about the movie wasn’t the messiness of it–I knew that was coming. It was the banality of the relationship between Joker (Jared Leto) and Harley. He talks about how much he wants to bang her, she does sexy dances and says she loves him. She says she’s crazy and talks about hearing voices, he says he’s scary and rolls around on the floor with some knives. I’ve seen couples that were more frightening in real life. The final edit couldn’t decide what Harley and Joker were–two sociopaths who found each other? An abusive monster and the needy victim driven insane? A love too dark and pure for the normies to understand? I’m down for any of those! But they gestured at all of them and committed to none and left most of the story on the cutting room floor if it was filmed at all.


The Worst Movie of the Decade:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Jeremiah: Zack Snyder’s magnum opus is a once in a generation bad film. A film as bad as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a film so bad it could only be made by talented people. Snyder is a director with an acute visual eye with no grasp of narrative storytelling. Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman was a daring and terrific casting choice. Even Henry Cavill, though neither Snyder nor the script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, gave him anything to work with, showed that he at the very least was willing to play anything.

Dawn of Justice is a movie that feels as if it was botched in the editing suite. At times it feels as if the film is groaning under the weight of too many studio notes while at others it seems to be flying off the handles from too little studio notes. A perfect storm of ideas, themes, but no clear understanding of how to tie them together or even what they want to say.

Kara: This movie has two of my favorite Batman moments of all time. One is the fight scene in the warehouse, where Batman pulls a knife out of his chest and stabs a guy with it. The second is a scene where Batman is literally presented as a horror-goblin. This is the Batman content I desire.

The movie is a pastiche of better moments in comics and a few TV shows, esp The Dark Knight and The Death of Superman. It’s one of the most accurate comic book movies I’ve seen in the sense of being visually and tonally disjointed, gesturing towards stories I don’t know and I’m not familiar with. It’s very much like a massive Crossover event done by writers and artists in the grim darkest of the 90s. There’s no joy or intelligence in either character.

Batman is the world’s greatest detective. He gets mysterious messages and doesn’t look into it. Superman, who can move faster than thought, and values human life above all other things, watches a bomb explode in a highly public area and sadly, slowly, flies away. The titular fight scene between the two is embarrassing. The movie starts to move towards the question of “what would it really be like if people had punch fights through buildings” but then betrays that with a CGI mess punch fight—a secondary punch fight, which brings back Zod, because the well is apparently dry on villains. And we can’t have a summer movie without 50 million dollars of bad CGI, can we?

Thad: I have written about my love of Superman before and I will again. I love Superman so much that I will still defend parts of Man of Steel. I love Superman so much that I enjoyed Superman Returns. But this… this… ugh. It was visually engaging, for the most part. Zack Snyder has a solid eye for bringing a comic book splash page to life. There are brief bursts that I like. Dude should just direct music videos and trailers and short films. It’s the details that get him.

Looking back across the whole grumpy, rushed, self-serious thing all I can think is… who did Bruce Wayne, the World’s Greatest Detective, think had sent him all those crazed scrawls about how he let his family die? Did he just… not want to follow up on that because of how mad he was at Superman? Did he think Superman sent them?

Joyless. That’s the word. It’s a movie about the two biggest superheroes in the world but it is ultimately a joyless rush to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Superhero movies don’t have to be joyful, but they should be able to stir up some of that feeling in my Superman loving heart and… nope. I started collecting comics with the Death and Return of Superman. It’s not a good story, but it is literally better than this.

Don’t forget to check in tomorrow to see our Best Films of the Decade List!









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