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The 20 worst films of 2016

Nine Lives (Photo: EuropaCorp)
Nine Lives (Photo: EuropaCorp)

Critics tend to see all the same good movies and none of the same bad ones. That’s the major difference between a best-of-the-year staff list and a worst-of-the-year staff list: The former expresses consensus enthusiasm, while the latter is just a series of individual bones being picked—a way for writers to vent about the lousy time each of us had with something the rest of us intentionally avoided. And there was a whole lot of crap to intentionally avoid in 2016, from bloated blockbusters to wingnut propaganda to our top/bottom choice, one of only two titles on this list to appear on more than two ballots. We suffered, on assignment and often alone, through these misbegotten follies. Keep intentionally avoiding them. Our misery requires no company.

20. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

It boggles the mind to contemplate the level of macho self-regard that would lead someone to make a movie like Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The apotheosis of DC’s infamous “no jokes” policy, Zack Snyder’s ponderous, overlong opus takes complex moral questions and reduces them to a fascist pissing contest, bathed in the sickly greens and concrete grays of a public bathroom after dark. Amid all this chest-beating, the camp pleasure of plot points like Jesse Eisenberg’s jittery Lex Luthor giving Holly Hunter a jar of his urine is diluted (no pun intended), leaving the skeptical viewer reaching for anything to keep them entertained throughout the film’s 151-minute—or 183 minute, if you’re watching the extended version—running time. Batman doing a CrossFit routine in what appears to be an abandoned sewer? Sure! Awkwardly shoehorned-in setup for Snyder’s upcoming Justice League movie? It passes the time! As toxic masculinity often is, however, this superpowered rivalry is fragile. All you have to do to break the spell is whisper one word: “Martha.” [Katie Rife]

19. Is That A Gun In Your Pocket?

Is That A Gun In Your Pocket?

Spike Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott recently turned Aristophanes’ sex-strike satire Lysistrata into the lively contemporary gang-culture musical Chi-Raq. If nothing else, writer-director Matt Cooper’s woeful Is That A Gun In Your Pocket? proves that what Lee and Willmott did wasn’t so easy. Cooper’s play on Lysistrata starts out as a well-intentioned commentary on Texans and guns, with Andrea Anders as a small-town wife and mother who responds to a school shooting by encouraging her gal pals to stay out of the bedroom until their men disarm. But right around the time Cloris Leachman shows up as a foul-mouthed grandma (within the first 10 minutes, in other words), it’s clear that this movie’s main goal is to stack up raunchy, sexist jokes about how men are dumb, primal horn-dogs and women are innately maternal and manipulative. Is That A Gun In Your Pocket? awkwardly shoehorns in the occasional statistic about gun violence, but they tend to get lost amid all the blue balls and boner gags. [Noel Murray]

18. Mojave

Photo: A24

“Oh, I’m sure that some entity other than yourself, Tarquin, will be the judge of that. But in my present mood, which is just terrific, my friend and I unconditionally accept service as your intention. We’ll have water, brother. We’re parched. We’ve been in the desert.” An hour and a half of unsimulated literary masturbation, the pseudo-intellectual cat-and-mouse thriller Mojave pits a game cast (including Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, and Mark Wahlberg) against writer-director William Monahan’s highly artificial, suffocating script and limited skills as a filmmaker. Monahan, a former journalist best known for writing The Departed, gifts his napkin-sketch characters with out-of-control vocabularies and opinions, but the only thing the film’s chatter and one-upmanship suggests is a single voice enthralled by its own cleverness. Mojave has a sense of humor, but not about itself, and the result comes across like a poor man’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

17. Term Life

Term Life

Some movies earn their place on this list by being spectacularly awful: They must be seen to be believed. Others are just completely insipid. Stylelessly directed by former child actor Peter Billingsley (a.k.a. Ralphie of A Christmas Story), Term Life belongs in the latter category; the only notable thing about it is Vince Vaughn’s bizarre and distracting hairpiece. Vaughn stars as a professional thief who has to protect his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) from corrupt cops and vengeful cartel members. One might call Term Life a waste of a flagrantly overqualified cast (including Steinfeld, Jonathan Banks, and Bill Paxton), but the fact is that the movie is little more than a crappy, low-energy, bill-paying Nicolas Cage vehicle, minus the essential ingredient of Cage. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

16. Miracles From Heaven

Miracles From Heaven

Thanks to the faith-based-movie boom, it’s no longer unusual to see religious propaganda in wide releases, nor for name actors to lend their talents to these preach sessions for the super-converted. But it’s still rare for a movie like Miracles From Heaven to get a pass from a lot of critics, a surprising number of whom mistakenly called this a competent and/or affecting story of a mother (Jennifer Garner) fighting for her sick child. Garner certainly gives the role her best shot, but she’s hamstrung by a story that’s only killing time until it can get to the good stuff. Here, that good stuff is a little girl falling into a hollow tree and emerging cured of a devastating medical malady, with a heaven-visitation story to boot. That story and her family’s faith convert her good fortune from medical type of miracle to from-God type of miracle, and the movie’s quietly smug dismissiveness about doctors and medicine is complete. Evangelical divine-intervention movies are like two-hour sets from one-hit wonders: an exercise in making the audience wait a ridiculous amount of time for an ending everyone knows is coming, to the satisfaction of true believers only. [Jesse Hassenger]

15. Exposed

Photo: Lionsgate

First-time filmmaker Gee Malik Linton had his name taken off Exposed (originally titled Daughter Of God) after it was heavily recut by producers, but there’s nothing in this misbegotten psychodrama—which resembles an unusually boring episode of Law & Order: SVU as directed by a film student who’s just seen Irréversible and Bad Lieutenant—to suggest a shredded masterpiece. Much of editing was reportedly focused on a more prominent role for Keanu Reeves, who is cast wildly against type (and acting ability) as a loose-cannon, witness-beating New York cop with a Robert Forster haircut. Few actors can be miscast to more comic or disruptive effect, and yet this yawn-inducing mix of bad-cop clichés and music-video dream sequences somehow makes Reeves’ tough-guy routine boring. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

14. Cabin Fever

Photo: IFC

Remake culture quietly hit rock bottom with this “new” Cabin Fever, whose supreme pointlessness at least poses a radical question: What if they shot a movie for absolutely no one? Faced with the imminent threat that his gross-out debut was going to be remade with or without him, splatter maverick Eli Roth opted to “protect” his vision by dusting off a 14-year-old screenplay and commissioning some slick hack to film it all over again. Scene for scene, line for line, it’s basically the same goopy horror-comedy, only with Roth’s borderline camp swapped out for a straight-faced grimness. Fans didn’t ask for it. Detractors could detect no improvements. And the uninitiated could just rent the original. In other words, we all needed this creatively bankrupt copy job about as much as a flesh-eating virus. [A.A. Dowd]

13. The Angry Birds Movie

The Angry Birds Movie

It’s hard to fault actors for taking easy voice-over work, especially comedians who might actually be well-suited for the job. But it’s still mystifying to consider that (deep breath) Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Keegan-Michael Key, Tony Hale, Hannibal Buress, Tituss Burgess, Ike Barinholtz, Jillian Bell, and Billy Eichner, plus non-comics Peter Dinklage and Sean Penn, all agreed to participate in one of the year’s worst feature-length cartoons. The cast list reads like a war memorial, with the comedians playing the part of fallen soldiers and the movie playing the war. Chasing the lame jokes with a sour aftertaste is the subtext (intentional or not) of a perpetually angry, unnaturally hued bird warning against the dangers of mysterious visitors from another land. The Angry Birds Movie was ostensibly made to entertain children and their parents. As it turns out, it’s barely fit to be crumpled up and flung at pigs. [Jesse Hassenger]

12. Hitler’s Folly

Hitler’s Folly

Bill Plympton excels at hilariously grotesque animation, but live-action satire is decidedly not his forte. This painfully unfunny, punishingly belabored mockumentary, which Plympton released for free on his website (not that any distributor would likely have gone near it), reimagines World War II as Hitler’s attempt to be Germany’s Walt Disney, with genocide just an accidental by-product of efforts to bankroll a cartoon version of Die Nibelungen starring a bad Donald Duck clone. Most of the film consists of archival footage accompanied by truly feeble jokes—e.g., Nazi was really “NACI,” for National Animation Cinema Institute—spoken in voice-over, though that’s far preferable to newly shot footage featuring Dana Ashbrook (every bit as manic in middle age as he was on Twin Peaks) ranting directly to the camera. The concept is so patently offensive that several staffers reportedly quit during production. Good for them. [Mike D’Angelo]

11. Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day

Garry Marshall passed away this year, a few months after his final film was released. He was by all accounts a warm and lovable man. But we have come here not to praise Marshall but to bury Mother’s Day, the stupefying conclusion to his holiday-ensemble trilogy. To be sure, Marshall’s signature sitcom sloppiness produced a movie with a shocking amount of bad ADR, cushioned jokes, awkward references to past Marshall family glories, and even grammatical errors. But his celebrity enablers ought to help shoulder the blame. Did Jennifer Aniston really need to play another prickly, put-upon single gal? Was Jason Sudeikis that eager to prove that he doesn’t have to be funny in a nominal comedy? Did Julia Roberts still consider her debt to Marshall unpaid, even after Valentine’s Day? None of these actors should have allowed Mother’s Day to happen. If they had all abandoned ship, the movie might have been left as a protracted table read between Marshall and his good-luck charm Hector Elizondo. It certainly couldn’t have been less funny that way. [Jesse Hassenger]

10. 11 Minutes

Photo: IFC

It takes a great director to make a movie as spectacularly hateful as 11 Minutes, and Poland’s Jerzy Skolimowski—whose past triumphs include Deep End (1970) and Moonlighting (1982)—definitely fits the bill. This pointless exercise in black-hearted cynicism meticulously constructs a Rube Goldberg device out of several “seemingly unrelated” (heavy sigh) narratives all taking place in and nearby a particular apartment building. Skolimowski’s countryman Krzysztof Kieślowski did something similar with his superb Dekalog, but that was a) 10 hours long and b) deeply human. 11 Minutes, by contrast, treats its ostensible characters like chess pieces, except the point of this game is not to checkmate the king, but to douse the board with gasoline and set every piece aflame, cackling at the wasted energy. It’s masterfully putrid. [Mike D’Angelo]

9. Nine Lives

Photo: EuropaCorp

As a dusty dollar rental on the bottom shelf of the kids’ section at the world’s last Blockbuster, Nine Lives would make sense. As a major studio film starring two Oscar winners and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, it just looks like a tax write-off. Kevin Spacey stars as Tom Brand, a billionaire real-estate tycoon too busy obsessively erecting America’s tallest skyscraper (no metaphor there) to spend time with his family. Fortunately, that’s nothing Christopher Walken as a magical pet-shop owner can’t fix by transferring Brand’s mind into the family cat’s body. Where did the cat’s consciousness go when Brand took over? That’s one of many metaphysical questions Nine Lives has no time to answer. Brand, after all, has to regain the love and trust of his daughter (as a cat), put the spark back into his marriage (still as a cat), and teach his adult son how to be a real man (also as a cat), all while figuring out how to pour himself a stiff drink without thumbs. [Katie Rife]

8. Yoga Hosers

Yoga Hosers

Kevin Smith is a gregarious dude, an engaging public speaker, and clearly a proud, loving father—all of which takes some fun out of ripping on his work. But with this embarrassingly slapdash buddy picture, everyone’s favorite human hockey jersey officially gives up on trying to please anyone outside his own genetic circle. Smith wrote and directed Yoga Hosers specifically for his teenage daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, who reteams with Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp, for a feature-length version of the one-scene cameo they logged in the filmmaker’s previous horror-comedy, Tusk. The girls’ unflagging pep—and the parental affection that assured it a showcase—is all that props up the movie, whose dearth of effort is reflected in everything from its amateur-hour special effects to its barrage of corny Canadian stereotypes. (Isn’t it just adorable how they say “aboot” instead of “about”?) Building a starring vehicle for your kid is definitely a father-of-the-year move. But that’s the only award that could remotely apply to Yoga Hosers. [A.A. Dowd]

7. Warcraft

Photo: Universal

It still feels kind of horrible to trash Duncan Jones’ latest movie so soon after he lost his dad, and thereby contribute to what could be the single worst year of his life. But just as David Bowie, despite his towering greatness, somehow produced an album as lame as Never Let Me Down, Jones—whose previous features, Moon and Source Code, are at the very least well worth seeing—spawned this ponderously goofy adaptation of the Warcraft video game franchise. A rabid fan, he poured his heart into the project, treating its epic battle between orcs and humans as if it had been penned by Tolkien; the result is at once too stupid to take seriously and too earnest to be any fun. Let’s hope it turns out to be a very early nadir. [Mike D’Angelo]

6. Alice Through The Looking Glass

Photo: Disney

Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll weren’t the perfect fit many assumed they’d be—at least not with Disney playing matchmaker. But a seven-hour loop of that stupid dance Johnny Depp did at the end of Alice In Wonderland would be preferable to one minute more of this soulless sequel. Produced, rather than directed, by Burton, the Mouse House’s second live-action trip down the rabbit hole turns Wonderland into even more of a green-screen eyesore, populated by paycheck-cashing stars and nattering CGI sidekicks. Worse, the film doubles down on the generic hero’s-journey normalizing, this time sending Mia Wasikowska’s Alice into a series of tedious, helixed backstories. The true offense is to the spirit of the source material; an adaptation in name only, Alice Through The Looking Glass betrays the fundamental irrationality of Carroll’s work with that most damnably rational of brand extensions: the origin story. With any luck, the beginning will be the end for this unfortunate franchise. [A.A. Dowd]

5. Hillary’s America: The Secret History Of The Democratic Party

Hillary’s America: The Secret History Of The Democratic Party

What should have been a footnote on this crazy election year now looks like something more dismaying: an instant relic of an age when paranoid far-right propagandist Dinesh D’Souza had something to rebel against. Not even seeing the wingnuts win, though, can entirely destroy the unintentional comedy of Hillary’s America, the third in a trilogy of hysterical conspiracy theories, community-theater historical recreations, and self-parodic musical numbers. Though built around the specious talking point that the “party of Lincoln” still deserves that label, the film’s real (dis)organizing principle is self-pity: D’Souza frames his case against Clinton through scenes of poor, jailed filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza getting metaphoric lessons about crime from a tattooed prisoner—a narrative device that unwisely requires the charisma-challenged director to “act.” For those more amused than disgusted by his bush-league tactics, November’s very bad news gets a little worse: It’ll probably be at least four years before the Ed Wood of political documentaries proves his patriotism again. [A.A. Dowd]

4. I Saw The Light

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Decent performances by Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen couldn’t save writer-director Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic, which is one of those “troubled genius” tales that focuses almost exclusively on the “troubled.” Following a doggedly episodic “and then this happened” structure—tracing the rise of Hiddleston’s Hank, and his increasingly drunken squabbles with Olsen’s Audrey Williams—I Saw The Light is so preoccupied with the country legend’s personal failings that viewers could come away completely unaware that they just watched the story of the man who wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” This is a grim slog of a film, so lacking in any evident love for Williams’ classic recordings that it’s reasonable to ask why Abraham was drawn to this subject in the first place. Is he just a big fan of cowboy hats? Or alcoholism? [Noel Murray]

3. 31

Photo: Lionsgate

Do you take delight in watching Nazi clowns threaten to rape someone’s ear holes? Did you think The Lords Of Salem veered too close to art? Then get in the van, shithead, because this year Rob Zombie crowdfunded an astoundingly juvenile exercise in cheap shock value. 31 shamelessly rips off earlier, better films like Battle Royale and The Purge, following a “family” of carnies as they’re kidnapped, set loose in a grimy industrial haunted house, and chased by psychos with names like Schizo-Head, Sick-Head, and Sex-Head in a 12-hour game of survival. Most of the characters are as eloquent as a drunk 13-year-old playing Call Of Duty (sample dialogue: “Hey, Fuckhead! Get over here! Get the fuck over here, fuckhead!”), save for Doom-Head, the college freshman to his victim’s high-school dropouts, a greasepaint-clad hit man who specializes in delivering sub-Tarantino monologues with his kills. If Zombie is trying to make some sort of satirical point by casting Malcolm McDowell as the decadent aristocrat who oversees this sadistic ritual, it’s a shallow one. The more likely scenario is that he just thinks it’s edgy to repeatedly threaten graphic sexual violence and paint swastikas on little people. [Katie Rife]

2. Norm Of The North

Photo: Lionsgate

The deep lousiness of the polar bear adventure Norm Of The North is attributable mostly to mundane factors like cruddy computer animation, shrill characters, thudding slapstick, lame puns, an incessant tuneless score—the usual kid-flick crimes. But what makes this movie not just crummy but inexcusable is that it’s essentially a straight-to-video-level rip-off of Madagascar, Happy Feet, and Ice Age that somehow ended up in theaters, because Hollywood these days will pass off any half-baked junk as children’s entertainment. Add in the missed opportunity of the plot—which uses “condo-developer buys up the Arctic” as a toothless substitute for “man-made global warming destroys the environment”—and what we’re left with is a film that’s tedious, witless, and pointless. A triple threat! [Noel Murray]

1. London Has Fallen

London Has Fallen

If one bad movie defined our year of death, suckitude, and fascism, it was the incompetent and dismal London Has Fallen. This shitshow has it all: sub-direct-to-video production values; repetitive knife fights; incoherent fear-mongering; a single-take action scene that still manages to be boring and incomprehensible; the pouty, angry-toddler scowl of Gerard Butler. A sequel to the forgettable Olympus Has Fallen, the film finds Butler reprising the role of Secret Service agent Mike Banning, the worst action-series hero in recent memory. After most of the world’s leaders are assassinated while attending a state funeral in the British capital (portrayed through a combination of Bulgarian studio backlots and local-newscast-grade stock footage), Banning and his best friend, the president of the United States (Aaron Eckhart), have to stab their way to safety through an onslaught of implicitly Middle Eastern evildoers. What’s the bad guys’ motivation? The killing of civilians by Western drone strikes. How do they pull off their nonsensical plan? By moving to London and taking jobs. What does Banning have to say to all of this? “Go back to Fuckheadistan.” [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]