Two film quotes come to mind:
- “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”
- “You thought you had to become Bigfoot to save this town, but you saved it a long time ago by just being you.”
One is from a good film. The other is from a film on this list. And this list represents the darkest cinematic nights of 2017…at least those I bore witness to.
I should note, I saw a lot fewer films this year than in previous years, and a lot fewer bad or even mediocre films. But a bottom 10 there had to be, and here they are.
This list includes spoilers for many of the films in question. If you care at all about these particular films being spoiled…consider yourself warned.
This is a film about Michael Shannon thinking he has to save his hometown by being Bigfoot, and Judy Greer telling him he saved it being himself. It’s also about Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman engaging in platonic furry antics. It’s also about Thomas Lennon as a fraudulent TV host, Ian McShane as a riff on Quint from Jaws (and a moonshiner to boot), and Perlman going on a camping trip to track down “Bigfoot”. It’s the kind of film which has such an odd premise and such an oddly strong cast that you want it to be some kind of weird hidden gem.
Obviously, it isn’t, although it has its moments by sheer force of strangeness, and Michael Shannon gives a strangely earnest performance in a role he’s utterly miscast in. But even at 85 minutes, it gets boring after awhile, and the end result is simply an odd misfire, albeit capped by one of the most mystifying final beats of any film I’ve ever seen.
9. Victoria & Abdul
This is easily the most surprising entry on this list; I never expected to like it that much, but I was rather shocked at just how much it put me off – first, with creaky jokes about Victoria’s constipation (I’m not kidding); then, by making Abdul Karim a beatific naïf, which is neither dramatically compelling, historically accurate, or a terribly good look in 2017; and lastly, by having Abdul’s friend/companion Mohammed Baksh (Adeel Akhtar) call him out for kowtowing to Victoria at every turn – because, by God, I was on his side from the very first!
Seriously, the whole subplot about Mohammed Baksh is so thunderously problematic it deserves to be discussed further. He and Abdul come to England as equals, but as Abdul rises in Victoria’s esteem, Mohammed becomes his servant, even though he clearly wants nothing more than to return to India (which I guess he can’t do without Abdul?). Eventually the English climate causes Mohammed’s health to fail, and he’s approached by Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard!!!) with an offer: provide information that will ruin Abdul’s reputation and you can go home. Mohammed, rather than doing this, tells Bertie to shove it in “your stinking royal bottom hole,” sealing his fate. He later dies off-screen.
Seriously, what the fuck? Even setting aside that this whole side of the story is probably totally fictionalized (although I have yet to ascertain just what Baksh’s ultimate fate was), how are we supposed to reconcile these sequences with the light comedy of Victoria’s demanding a mango or having a successful bowel movement, or the ham-fisted depiction of Abdul’s opponents in the royal household as loathsome racists? How are we supposed to root for Abdul when he seems to have abandoned his friend to die thousands of miles from home, when his status would probably have been more than enough to get Mohammed back to India? Of course, if the script actually gave Abdul any real dimensions, there might have been some drama to be gleaned from the situation. Instead, it just makes the film all the more uncomfortable to watch.
I’m going to stop there because I’m just going to get angrier the more I think about this film. Suffice to say, it’s fucking hilarious that this was released the same year as Get Out.
I had a feeling from the trailers that this would be a misfire. And it sure was – in pretty much every possible way. It’s not even the kind of film that’s fun to tear apart; it’s just the kind of film that leaves you feeling dispirited. The kind of film where you just don’t care, even a little bit.
Part of the problem is the total lack of sympathetic or even interesting characters. Matt Damon’s anti-hero lead is just a prick, his son is a cipher, his sister-in-law/lover (Julianne Moore) is a boring caricature of 50s domesticity, and their black neighbors, who are the target of unrelenting scorn upon moving into an otherwise all-white neighborhood, are granted virtually no interiority whatever. Even Oscar Isaac, generally considered the film’s sole saving grace, isn’t really that great. He’s just compelling because Oscar Isaac is such an inherently compelling actor. But here, he’s given too little to do, removed from the story too soon, and his surroundings are too dreary for it to matter much anyway.
Really, it’s just the kind of film which reminds you of other, better films that covered the same territory, namely Pleasantville and Fargo – and, indeed, it was based on an old, un-produced Coen Brothers script, revamped by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, who simply can’t make it sing. And Clooney’s direction does it few favors; he doesn’t even really have much fun with the 50s aesthetic. It’s just a slog from start to finish, and one of the year’s biggest single wastes of potential.
7. King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword
I didn’t especially love The Lost City of Z, but even I’ll say that it’s bullshit that it only made a bit more than 10% of what this earned (and remember, this was a massive flop). At least there, Charlie Hunnam was giving a strong performance. Here, I couldn’t really tell you anything about his performance, because I barely remember any specifics about this film, simply that it was thoroughly mediocre.
Well, that’s not quite true. I remember a few things. I remember that the Stone (of “the Sword in the” fame) was Uther Pendragon’s ossified corpse. Because that was ridiculous. And I remember that Jude Law was decent as the villain but Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey was horrendous as the unnamed mage who would probably have ended up being Guinevere in the sequels this film will never get. And I remember the few scenes where Guy Ritchie was allowed to indulge his signature style, because they were the only scenes in the film which came close to truly working.
And of course, I remember that this cost $175 million, because someone thought spending that much on yet another Arthur film was a good idea, tied into the fact that someone thought trying to kick-start a King Arthur Cinematic Universe was a good idea. But I dare say, those were not good ideas in the slightest.
6. The Great Wall
More Matt Damon! Between this, Suburbicon, Downsizing (which wasn’t terrible, but was a lot closer to this list than it ever should have been), and his comments regarding the #MeToo movement, he didn’t have too good of a year. I’m not sure what’s going on there. And I’m not sure what’s going on here, or why he was involved; he plays a pretty generic action-film-lead role, one that any number of actors could’ve filled just as well.
It’s just not a very good film at all, from the generic CGI monsters to the thin story to the utter waste of Willem Dafoe. There are color-coded armies who fight said monsters, there’s some shit about war balloons, there’s a fight in a psychedelically-lit tower at the end for some reason…but honestly, it wasn’t all that much fun. It was just too serious and too generic, and why Zhang Yimou spent his time making it is frankly beyond me. It’s one of the more watchable films on this list, but what of that? There are so many better films out there.
5. The Book of Henry
I’ve already written about this film at length, about how utterly strange it is, about how confused its intentions are, how inexplicable so much of its story is, how misleading the posters were…I’ll just quote a passage from my review which sums it up pretty well:
So having shown that the film fundamentally fails to understand who it’s trying to appeal to, let’s turn our attention to the other question: What is it about? More than that, what is it trying to say? What is its message, if any?
If there is a message, I really couldn’t tell you what it is. The tagline on the poster, “Never leave things undone,” is about the best I’ve got. It’s certainly less problematic than what might be the key exchange in the film, coming as Henry criticizes Susan for not intervening when they witnessed an episode of spousal abuse at the grocery store:
HENRY: There are worse things than violence.
Even if this is the key theme of the film, it does quite a bad job of illustrating it; that much of the film features a grown woman participating in a murder plot orchestrated by her 11-year-old child fatally undermines it.
4. The Mummy
I’m not sure if any film, even the worst entries in the DCEU, have failed as pathetically at establishing a cinematic universe as this film did. Supposedly it was to set up the “Dark Universe”, which would bring together Universal’s classic monsters into some kind of SHIELD rip-off lead by Dr. Jekyll – but Russell Crowe’s Jekyll is neither an interesting character, nor, as shown here, terribly good at his job. And whoever exactly Tom Cruise is playing isn’t interesting; he’s just some dude who gets the mummy’s curse, or something like that. Sofia Boutella, as the actual Mummy, is fairly solid, but the film gives her nothing to work with; her own storyline is just a means to an end. Only the end isn’t really worth it.
Simply as a film, it’s a dud; the horror isn’t scary, the comedy isn’t funny, and I don’t know what the fuck Jake Johnson thought he was doing, but I hope he was subverting the hell out of this mess of a film. Some months ago, I called it “one of the more counter-intuitive tentpole movies I’ve seen in a while.” I can’t improve upon that.
3. Slamma Jamma
I’m not sure how best to discuss Slamma Jamma, since I can’t just share the running commentary I posted on Facebook whilst watching it the theater (for technical reasons, not because I’m holding out on you). Should I start by discussing the script, which is riddled with lapses of logic from start to finish? Or the acting, if it can be called that? Or the fact that the cinematographer, Dean Cundey, once lensed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Or what about the fact that Jose Canseco cameos as himself – as an unrepentantly corrupt dunking-competition judge?
If there’s anything that redeems this film, it’s the indisputable sincerity with which it was made. To be fair, like so many “inspirational” dramas it has no clear message (shades of The Identical), and it’s hard to be too inspired when there’s something ridiculous to trip you up at every turn. But compared to these next two films, it’s relatively harmless – a little film made for not much money. It would’ve be nice – and more inspiring than anything else – had it been good, but it’s not surprising that it wasn’t.
2. The Emoji Movie
I pushed back this article to allow me to see this (on Netflix, so I wouldn’t have to pay extra), and as you can see, it paid off. It’s no surprise that this was bad; it’s not like that “[poop emoji] happens” poster was setting the bar any too high. But I expected to really hate this film, and when it was over, I realized the only proper way to express my contempt for it was to say: it doesn’t deserve to be the worst film of the year. #2, absolutely (and what a fitting rank), but I’ll be damned if I lavish any superlatives on it.
What really struck me about this film, start to finish, is how incredibly lazy it is. The script avoids anything like real conflict, or tension, or excitement, or wit, at every turn. The characters are annoying, when they’re anything at all. The story is a blatant rip-off of Wreck-It Ralph, only it’s about a “meh” emoji trying to rein in his propensity for changing expressions – and if that side of the story lacks much fire, the subplot about a human teenager trying to ask a girl out using emojis – and decided to have his phone professionally “deleted” when it starts having issues – is hopeless. And then at the end, he asks her out with an emoji (the hero, embracing his Protean form), and it fucking works!
Also, I’m not sure which is sadder: that this film doesn’t know what Internet trolls actually are, or that it wants us to believe a teenage boy would never use the eggplant emoji.
Really, all I can say is: if you have kids, and they want to watch this movie, show them something else. Anything else. I can guarantee they’ll be better off.
1. The Snowman
There was no other choice for me. Slamma Jamma was never going to be good. The Emoji Movie was never going to be good. But this…this had no excuse being this bad. And when I say “this bad,” I don’t just mean that it’s boring or confusing. I mean this movie is inept. This is a movie where the director openly admitted something like 15% of the script was never filmed. This is a movie where the main character’s name (Harry Hole) is pronounced…exactly the way you’d think. Which is not only inaccurate, but it adds unintentional hilarity to a film that doesn’t need any more liabilities.
I honestly can’t remember the last major studio film I saw that failed this spectacularly at such a basic level. From the very first scene, it’s badly directed, incoherently written, and horribly edited. It has a good director (Tomas Alfredson, who impressed me greatly with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), a good cast (Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chloë Sevigny, J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, James d’Arcy), and a great editor (Thelma Schoonmaker!), and represents a career low for most if not all of them. Even if the production hadn’t been a total botch, it wouldn’t have been good. But what they put into theaters as a finished product, worthy of public consumption, is truly horrendous.
But as bad as it is throughout (and it really is – I can think of maybe one scene that works in the slightest), nothing is worse than the scenes with Val Kilmer, which must rank among the clumsiest, most baffling, and most unintentionally tragic scenes of recent memory. Kilmer was very ill during filming and looks it, requiring his voice to be (very badly) dubbed, but beyond that, his scenes are so badly assembled and so horribly confusing that it’s scarcely worth the trouble to figure out how they relate to the main plot, if they even do (I think they do? I can’t quite remember).
It’s such a mess of a film that, come the end, we don’t even know for sure if a major character is dead or not. If they are dead, it’s horribly glossed over. And if they’re not, well…where the fuck did they go? Of course, right on the heels of that is the laughable climax on the surface of a frozen lake, where our hero screams into the mist, is winged by the villain, and then watches as the villain falls through the ice and drowns. Really a finale for the ages. And then it has the gall to try and set up a franchise! Shameless.
This didn’t have to be so bad. This could’ve been good. It should’ve been good. With this pedigree and, I would assume, solid enough source material, there’s no reason this shouldn’t have been a decent film. And that it turned out as horribly as this, as ineptly as this, is simply inexcusable, and makes it eminently worthy of the #1 spot.
Next up: the dawn is coming.