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The 20 worst films of 2014

Talking heating vents. Sexy pie-making sessions. Colin Farrell riding a flying horse. All this and more can be found on The A.V. Club’s ranked list of the worst films released theatrically in 2014—a downward spiral through the lowest circles of cinematic hell. Bad movies know no specific genre, and this past year’s crop ran the gamut, from thrill-free thrillers to unfunny comedies to copyright extensions disguised as movies. Assembling the list was a labor of hate, but also a community service: Think of it as a handy guide to the films you shouldn’t catch up with on VOD this holiday season. And check back in a couple days, when we cleanse ourselves of these follies with a list of the 20 best movies of 2014. Spoiler alert: None of them feature a sewage monster or John Cusack.

20. Atlas Shrugged, Part III: Who Is John Galt?

The whimpering, ersatz finale to medical equipment millionaire John Aglialoro’s three-part adaptation of Atlas Shrugged could have been a serious contender for the number one spot on this list, if only it had been in theaters long enough for more than one of this poll’s participants to see it. Bringing Ayn Rand’s vision to the screen with all the licensed stock footage, community-theater acting, and state-park locations that a very small amount of money can buy, Aglialoro and director James Manera have created one of the definitive cut-rate movies—a film that achieves the improbable by resembling a mockbuster knock-off of itself. From its flubbed lines (“It’s like I can’t believe you alive!” could be this generation’s “Time for go to bed”) to its sub-Wiseau utility-closet sex scene, this is a film so shoddy that it almost qualifies as a must-see. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

19. Devil’s Knot

The massive success of Serial proves, if nothing else, that it’s possible to grippingly examine a cold case without resorting to sensationalism or sentimentalism. Consider Devil’s Knot, then, the podcast’s evil cinematic counterpoint—a mawkish narrative take on the West Memphis Three trial, in which a trio of Arkansas teens were convicted, with little actual evidence, of a triple child homicide. Though technically based on Mara Leveritt’s non-fiction book, the film operates like a movie-of-the-week version of Paradise Lost: Scenes from the HBO documentary are unconvincingly reenacted, with lots of dolled-up actors (among them Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth) failing to approximate the overwhelming emotional intensity of the real footage. After four feature-length docs on the subject, there was arguably no pressing need for anyone to dramatize this tragic true story. That the once-great Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) is the director responsible for it is doubly depressing. [A.A. Dowd]

18. Saving Christmas

Saving Christmas may not be the worst movie of the year, not least because of the provocative question it raises: How much story, character, and actual footage must something contain to be considered an actual movie? For the sects of Christianity hell-bent on supporting whatever product Kirk Cameron is peddling, the answer is “experimentally little.” Imagine trying to sell a movie set primarily in a parked car where a faded sitcom star gives a 45-minute lecture to the general moviegoing public, then imagine how few people would even consider showing up. But because Cameron has positioned himself as fighting back against a perceived war on Christmas by condescending to his fictional brother-in-law Christian (Darren Doane), his ramblings become weird totems of faith-friendly entertainment, even if they don’t actually provide it. Director and co-star Doane keeps lingering on dramatically lit soundstage shots of inanimate objects like a rock or Christmas trees, like a bargain-bin Terrence Malick who’s never been outside. It fits the driving message: The chintzy, material celebrations of Christmas are not just permissible but preferable, because it’s all in service of a holiday where Christ himself was made material. By this logic, parishioners can take communion by gnawing on some plastic dollar-store toys—or, next year, DVDs of Saving Christmas. [Jesse Hassenger]

17. A Million Ways To Die In The West

Seth MacFarlane does his damnedest to kill the Western once and for all with A Million Ways To Die In The West, a comedy that pokes fun at oaters with lethal humorlessness. Despite enlisting the talents of Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Amanda Seyfried, MacFarlane casts himself as the protagonist of his story, about a dorky sheep farmer who finds himself at odds with a famed gunslinger (Neeson). It’s a disastrous casting mistake, given that the writer-director-star boasts a distinctly 21st-century snarky-wiseass attitude that doesn’t jibe with his 19th-century milieu—not to mention the fact that as a performer, he’s about as appealing as a punch to the face. As expected from the Family Guy and Ted creator, MacFarlane drenches his film in inappropriate gags (of a sexual, racist, or bodily fluid sort), all of which strain to be outrageous and yet come across as merely the pitiful look-at-me antics of a filmmaker desperate to stand out from the crowd via juvenile offensiveness. [Nick Schager]

16. Third Person

The best thing that can be said for Crash mastermind Paul Haggis’ globe-hopping Third Person is that it attempts nothing so lofty as diagnosing, and subsequently “fixing,” racial tensions in America. The worst thing that can be said about it is that it’s still a Paul Haggis movie—in other words, a crosscutting game of dramatic bingo, creating facile links between thinly sketched characters. Wasted stars like Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody, and Mila Kunis are arranged like dots on a sheet of graph paper, their subplots hitting crescendo in unison, their fates synced through a few capital-T Themes. What do these damaged urbanites really have in common? Haggis baldly telegraphs the “surprise” ending, making it awfully hard to invest in the two-and-a-half hours before the big reveal. At least the writer-director has some self-awareness, as evidenced by the scene where someone tells the movie’s author character that he has “random characters making excuses for [his] life.” The first step to getting better, Mr. Haggis, is admitting you have a problem. [A.A. Dowd]

15. America: Imagine The World Without Her

Wing-nut kitsch of the first order, Dinesh D’Souza’s follow-up to 2016: Obama’s America opens with a Continental Army soldier writing a letter on September 11, 1777 (“My loving wife, these past few months away from you and Nathaniel have been difficult”) and ends with freed slaves dancing while Phillip Phillips’ “Home” blares on the soundtrack. In between these two high-water marks of tasteless cheese sits a specious, conspiracy-kook paean to… Dinesh D’Souza. At times hilariously insincere, D’Souza’s feature-length tribute to his humility and love for colonialism, exceptionalism, and the American dream plays like the defense’s side of a sentencing hearing, climaxing in a scene where the director poses for the camera in handcuffs and then gets up to stare at the Lincoln Memorial. Three months after the movie’s release, D’Souza was sentenced to a halfway house for campaign fraud. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

14. Best Night Ever

Bound to give viewers a newfound appreciation for the lazy reference-pastiche spoofs (Meet The Spartans, Vampires Suck, etc.) that are Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s usual stock-in-trade, this grueling found-footage flick is only categorized as a comedy because it was marketed that way. For the most part, it consists of the duo struggling to fill up Best Night Ever’s (presumably contractually mandated) 90-minute running time; besides the mind-boggling eight minutes of end credits and a dialogue-free seven-minute-long montage of the characters walking around Las Vegas, the movie includes a nearly five-minute static shot of the inside of a dumpster and a minute-long sequence of close-ups of semen stains on the walls and upholstery of a motel room. In one climactic scene, one of the characters shits on a man’s face—an image that could easily function as a metaphor for the whole movie. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

13. Miss Meadows

Vigilante justice is a subject fraught with potential land mines, while pitch-black comedy is a risky high-wire act. Attempting to tackle both simultaneously, Miss Meadows slips, falls, and explodes. The basic concept is already obnoxiously cutesy: Katie Holmes plays the title character, a substitute teacher who packs a pistol and regularly blows scumbags away, as an almost animatronic emblem of prim perkiness, like a Disney princess crossed with a Stepford wife. The real problem, though, is that writer-director Karen Leigh Hopkins has no guts, opting to make all of Miss Meadows’ killings entirely justified. The character’s whole life consists of walking around a pleasant suburban neighborhood being accosted by potential rapists, murderers, child molesters, and other assorted predators. While there are clear suggestions that she’s insane, her actions are never questionable—she shoots only in self-defense, or to protect small children. Ultimately, Miss Meadows appears to condone its protagonist’s behavior, concluding that being armed and ready to kill any threatening individual is just dandy. Right now, especially, fuck that noise. [Mike D’Angelo]

12. The Legend Of Hercules

2014 gave audiences a chance to not see two different versions of Hercules: Brett Ratner’s surprisingly watchable Hercules, led by a perfectly cast Dwayne Johnson; and this joyless, impersonal slog of a peplum movie, directed by one-time blockbuster hotshot Renny Harlin. In an Ancient Greece that looks suspiciously like Bulgaria, muscle-men with shaved armpits and impeccable electric-trimmer stubble heave and grunt in between lines of dialogue that are written and delivered so indifferently that they might as well be dubbed-over Italian. Once upon a time, Harlin was one of the biggest names in big-budget action; now, he’s been reduced to doing piss-poor imitations of Zack Snyder and late-period Ridley Scott in a failed Kellan Lutz franchise starter. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

11. Hector And The Search For Happiness

Simon Pegg is such a likeable actor that it’s downright painful to watch him flail his way through this extended, nauseating tour of one man’s oblivious narcissism. White Privilege: The Movie, as it should have been called, sees Pegg’s Hector abruptly decide to take a sabbatical from his psychiatric practice and go jet-setting around the world in order to research what makes people happy. Naturally, the answers he seeks are in China, where he falls for a prostitute (Zhao Ming); in Africa, where he befriends a benevolent drug dealer (Jean Reno); and in Los Angeles, where he achieves closure with an ex-girlfriend (Toni Collette). “Which emotion is he feeling?” Collette asks a neuroscientist (Christopher Plummer) late in the film, as Hector sits with wires attached to his head for some dopey experiment. “All of them!” Plummer somehow manages to exclaim with a straight face. The only emotion visible on the face of poor Rosamund Pike, however, playing Hector’s enabling doormat of a fiancée, is regret that she’s not on the set of Gone Girl instead. [Mike D’Angelo]

10. If I Stay

Tread lightly while panning YA romances; too often, Twilight bashing can turn to cheap eye-rolling over “girl stuff,” even though there’s nothing wrong with stories aimed at girls and there’s nothing wrong with romance. There’s a whole lot wrong, however, with If I Stay, an over-narrated and under-dramatized account of Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) getting a boyfriend and getting into a life-threatening car accident, in that order. With much of her family lost, Mia hovers between life and death, remembering an extremely dull love affair whose primary conflict pits her desire to go to college in New York against her boyfriend’s desire to live in Portland (when his Merge-signed rock band isn’t on tour). Meanwhile, semi-ghost Mia runs around the hospital, emoting in Moretz’s usual stage-whisper. Because the movie establishes no mechanism for how Mia might actively fight her way back into her body beyond observing the vague presence designated as her true love, it basically becomes a movie about an otherwise well-adjusted (and, frankly, pretty boring) girl deciding whether or not to commit suicide. In other words, If I Stay constructs a typical YA-romance love triangle, except with the sweet release of death subbing in for the second potential boyfriend. [Jesse Hassenger]

9. Drive Hard

In recent years, John Cusack has fashioned something of a second career playing tough guys and killers in lame direct-to-VOD B-movies. And none have proven quite as dispiriting as Drive Hard, which per its title features lots of driving but, otherwise, doesn’t try very hard at anything at all. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith’s film is an action-comedy that wants to deliver both thrills and laughs, but his direction is so slapdash that most scenes feel like work-in-progress rehearsals, full of flailing limbs, overcooked line readings, and generally tepid vehicular mayhem in which cars never seem to exceed the speed limit. As a criminal forcing a former race-car phenom (Thomas Jane) to be his getaway driver, Cusack exudes all the menace of a child’s teddy bear. If his man-in-black outfit (replete with reflective sunglasses that he never takes off) casts him as a dreary cliché, his awkwardness at wielding and shooting firearms marks him as a figure uniquely ill-suited for this line of villainous work. [Nick Schager]

8. Dark House

Dark House opens with a woman talking to a demonic voice emanating from a heating vent, and somehow gets even sillier from there. The film’s story finds the usual half-assed excuse to get a few attractive young people to a creepy, dilapidated house in the woods—in this case, a guy named Nick (Luke Kleintank) inherits the property, only to find it mysteriously in the wrong location and occupied by Jigsaw, or at least by Tobin Bell as a hostile vagrant with long, greasy hair. Eventually, there’s a small army of murderous hobos, who pursue Nick and his bland friends with axes while loping sideways on all fours like deformed gorillas—a truly goofy sight. The formal brio director Victor Salva demonstrated over a decade ago in Jeepers Creepers is nowhere in evidence here, and the screenplay he’s co-written makes no damn sense. Nick also has the power to see how people will die simply by touching them, so he refuses to touch his pregnant girlfriend’s belly. Does that mean he’s planning never to touch his child? Dad of the year. [Mike D’Angelo]

7. The Bag Man

Both John Cusack and Robert De Niro have been prone to slumming over the past decade or so, but rarely has either sunk as low as this utterly pointless pseudo-noir exercise. Cusack is the titled bag man, hired by De Niro’s crime boss to deliver a satchel to a seedy motel in the middle of nowhere. The only rule: He’s not allowed to look inside the bag, under any circumstances. Tantalizing? Not after one endures the film’s litany of stale tough-guy banter, random wackiness (hi, Crispin Glover!), and gratuitous sadism. Its idea of wit has the bad guy hand a woman the phone number of a top-notch plastic surgeon before he punches her in the face, breaking her nose; while De Niro has played any number of psychopaths over the years, it’s disheartening to see him involved in such a cheap, bottom-feeding excuse to revel in ugliness. Worse, the movie itself is ugly—so freakin’ dark that it’s nearly impossible to see the actors half the time. Maybe they were hiding from the lights. You could hardly blame them. [Mike D’Angelo]

6. Labor Day

There’s a scene from Jason Reitman’s Labor Day that everyone loves to make fun of, and it’s the one where Josh Brolin’s saintly escaped convict seduces Kate Winslet’s lonely single mother with nothing but his mad baking skills, treating a mixing bowl like the clay wheel in Ghost. Hilarious? Very much so. But if you were to somehow remove this moment from the movie—like, oh, say, one might remove a single wedge of an erotically prepared pie—you’d still have one howlingly bad melodrama on your hands. Reitman, the Hollywood scion director of Juno and Up In The Air, is aiming for the tearjerker glory of a Douglas Sirk romance. But his movie has no passion, just Hallmark-card images of New England suburbia and a couple of stars caught in a lobotomized love story. Amazingly, it’s not Reitman’s only misfire of the year: He also made the Internet Age cautionary tale Men, Women & Children, which got even worse reviews than Labor Day. To put the pastry jokes to bed, that’s like getting hit in the face with two piping-hot peach pies. [A.A. Dowd]

5. Winter’s Tale

The directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who also penned the script, from Mark Helprin’s novel), Winter’s Tale stars Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, and Will Smith—and even with that considerable pedigree, it’s a stunning misfire, a magical-realist mess of mystical gibberish, gooey romance, and a flying horse. Oh, there’s also time travel of a sort involved in this fiasco, which concerns an Irish thief (Farrell) in 1916 New York City who falls in love with a dying girl and promises to save her from death, much to the chagrin of a demon (Crowe) working for Satan (Smith). What ensues is more off-key nonsense than can be found in 10 like-minded fantasy sagas, with glittering jewels, wondrous doodads, and constant, ridiculous talk about fate and love. Eventually transporting its out-there material to the present day, where it rings even more false, it’s a film of epic missteps, none greater than the absurd climactic sight of Farrell taking a ride on his airborne steed. [Nick Schager]

4. Lullaby

One has to wonder if Andrew Levitas has incriminating evidence with which to blackmail Amy Adams, because how else did the writer-director convince the Oscar-nominated actress to appear in this insufferably tone-deaf family drama? Adams randomly shows up from time to time as the girlfriend of Garrett Hedlund’s wannabe-singer, who returns home to the East Coast because his father (Richard Jenkins) has chosen to stop fighting cancer and pull his own plug. Unfortunately for Jenkins’ paterfamilias, however, his grating lawyer daughter wants to file an injunction to stop him, resulting in incessant arguing that’s almost as nails-on-a-chalkboard irritating as a subplot in which Hedlund’s brooder befriends a dying teenage cancer patient, which leads to bonding over cigarettes and—in the year’s most groan-worthy sequence—a “date” to her makeshift prom. As far as family reunions go, Lullaby is one that’s so maudlin and mushy that it makes you wish everyone in the clan would stop their bickering and all drink the same fatal holiday Kool-Aid. [Nick Schager]

3. Septic Man

If there’s one kind of horror movie more tedious than a neutered run-through of tired jump-scare clichés, it’s the failed would-be cult item that fancies itself satirical, surreal, transgressive, or worse, all of the above. Septic Man, in which a septic worker is paid to head into the sewers during a water contamination emergency that eventually mutates him into a horrible figure of vengeance, has that kind of misplaced confidence—faith that its craziness plus buckets of vomit, shit, and gore will carry it through to notoriety. It’s so confident, in fact, that the movie stretches what is essentially a 10-minute origin scene into a feature film. Director Jesse Thomas Cook doesn’t use loud music stings to jostle the audience into feeling like they’ve been scared; instead, characters just scream and wail and vomit all the time, as the infected septic worker makes his slow, deadly transformation, and assorted inexplicable psychos circle the drain along with him. [Jesse Hassenger]

2. 3 Days To Kill

In 2014, Luc Besson the director released one of his best movies in years, the ambitiously nutty Lucy. But back in the EuropaCorp mines, Besson the writer-producer hit a new low just by running through one of his go-to formulas: Put an aging movie star into a Eurotrash action semi-spectacular, complete with hit men, particular sets of skills, and, preferably, an endangered daughter. Kevin Costner gets his shot at Liam Neeson-style glory as a poisoned CIA operative desperate to set things right before he dies, while Hailee Steinfeld plays the estranged daughter whose blossoming sexuality haunts, confuses, and obsesses him, in the guise of parental concern. 3 Days To Kill isn’t even as memorably creepy as this might sound; it’s directed by erstwhile master of music-video flash McG, yet is so lifeless that this fact barely registers as a possible reason for its terribleness. A Besson co-written, McG-directed action movie that includes Amber Heard as a heavily made-up bombshell assassin really ought to have, say, a single memorable image. Instead, it only distinguishes itself from its EuropaCorp brethren by becoming drearier, duller, and less funny than anything else Besson has touched. [Jesse Hassenger]

1. Left Behind

Casting wild man Nicolas Cage in an evangelical doomsday thriller sounds like a recipe for camp nirvana. But while there are quite a few big, unintentional laughs in Left Behind, the overwhelming emotion the movie provokes is pity. How strapped for cash, how totally desperate, must Cage have been to sign on to such a cut-rate production—a bargain-basement disaster movie legitimized only by the presence of an Oscar winner in its cast? And how did producer Paul LaLonde manage to make an even chintzier version of this bestselling material than the one Kirk Cameron starred in 14 years ago? The Sharknado of faith-based entertainment, Left Behind is a crapterpiece of near divine mystery, flummoxing mortal moviegoers with its awkward blend of Old Testament moralizing and broad comic relief. Just don’t weep too hard for the film’s movie-star ringer: Judging from the training-video production values, Syfy-grade special effects, and porn-worthy performances, Cage may have received a rather sizable portion of the $20 million budget, approximately $19,900,000 of which seems to have mysteriously disappeared on its way to the screen. [A.A. Dowd]