Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We spent this week talking about the 50 best films of the ’90s, plus films that didn’t make it to our consensus list, but that individual writers love. Here’s the other end of the pole: The films that we most hated from that decade. What are yours?
I’m not going to claim Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down was in any objective way the worst film of the ‘90s—the same man made Batman & Robin the same decade, after all. But it’s still one of the films that most stands out for me from that era, because it’s such a ham-handed, wrong-headed, self-congratulatory attempt to encapsulate its era’s spirit, and one of the films that made me angriest both as a viewer and as a reviewer. Michael Douglas stars as a middle-class white L.A. native who snaps after getting divorced, laid off, and stuck in an infuriating traffic jam during a heat wave. He subsequently starts a killing spree across Los Angeles, encountering a series of cartoonishly garish, imbecilic stereotypes of pretty much everyone who isn’t a middle-class white male, and often murdering them for their petty sins. It’s seemingly meant as a sort of dark comedy about the petty annoyances of life, and how they can accumulate and become so maddening that over-the-top cathartic violence seems like the only satisfying option. But Douglas’ violent reaction to his surroundings, and the way the film treats virtually everyone around him as worthless, and presents his violence as the comedic payoff, turns it into a tone-deaf, self-pitying lament about the terrible persecution facing the oppressed majority in an era of political correctness and increasing multiculturalism. In its ugly, skewed world, almost everyone but this madman is dumb, incompetent, and offensive, and his only possible solution is to wipe a few of these losers off the face of the earth, then die. It’s a profoundly hateful film disguised alternately (and erratically) as either tragedy or humor.
Ooh, I’ve got one that might be controversial, depending on which way the Kevin Smith wind is blowing: Chasing Amy. Oh my, what a piece of crap in every possible way. And this is coming from a guy who was excited to see it—who enjoyed Clerks and continues to defend Mallrats. But when Smith decided he was something of an artiste—that he could make a movie that was actually about something… and that something was relationships, and lesbianism, and manhood… The story is ridiculous and trite while aspiring to be so much more. When it comes time for Smith (as Silent Bob) to give his speech about “chasing Amy,” it’s almost too much to handle. And then things just get worse, with characters acting in the most ridiculous ways possible, then learning some kind of lesson. It’s like a bad South Park episode. Also, how is it possible that Smith somehow makes good actors seem really bad in pretty much all of his movies? Does he just pick the worst takes, or does he have some kind of magical anti-acting dust in his camera?
I came into Face/Off positively inclined toward the principal players. John Woo? Great! Loved The Killer! Bullet In The Head was a masterpiece! John Travolta was still basking in the afterglow of Pulp Fiction, and Nic Cage still wouldn’t get the script for Ghost Rider or remake The Wicker Man for years to come. All this is a roundabout way of saying my expectations were pretty high for this film. Anyone who’s ever seen it—or hell, read a description of it—can understand that, given those expectations, it’d be an understatement to call my disappointment in the film crushing. The story—about a high-tech face-transplant operation used on a cop so he can infiltrate a criminal organization—was absurd, obviously, but I think I somehow blocked its inherent absurdity from my mind. As bad as the premise itself was, the ridiculous twists and turns it took pushed it beyond all recognition. I remember disgust settling in about 20 minutes into the film, and it just got worse and worse for the remaining 120 minutes or so. Maybe if I could have accepted that I was watching something fit for MST3K, I could have enjoyed it for its badness, but given my high hopes for it, I felt nothing but seething hatred for it by the time it was over.
I know there are plenty of people who love Life Is Beautiful, and I know it was generally embraced by critics and beloved by the Academy Awards and all that, but I think it’s horrifying, and there’s nothing you can say to convince me otherwise. (I have many, many friends who have tried.) I generally agree with the assertion that a comedy can be made out of anything, given a sufficiently controlled tone and the right tenor of jokes. But by trying to turn the Holocaust into some sappy fable, Life Is Beautiful does a disservice to itself both as comedy and as basic storytelling. The opening half of the film—a weird tale of some wacky clown who enchants a beautiful woman—works overtime to convince us that Roberto Benigni’s mugging equals charm, and once things shift to put Benigni’s new family in a concentration camp, the whole thing becomes even more squirm-inducing. The central idea that Benigni is going to preserve his son’s innocence by keeping the horrors of the camp from him is, at the least, incredibly dumb. At worst, it would turn his son into a Holocaust denier who wouldn’t even realize how ridiculous he sounded. There have been many worse movies made about more serious subjects, but the amount of acclaim Life Is Beautiful received has stuck in my craw since the late ’90s. It’s a mess of a movie that mostly succeeded based on an inflated sense of its own novelty.
For a film to really earn my ire, mere incompetence is not enough. So while American Beauty may be a more technically accomplished movie than, say, Mannequin: On The Move, it’s infinitely more loathsome. Conventional wisdom has it that the film’s stock has fallen since its near-sweep of the Oscar’s major categories, but given that a live reading of the film’s script at this year’s Toronto Film Festival was touted as one of the festival’s highlights, I’d say it hasn’t fallen far enough. As a child of the suburbs—albeit one who takes solace in the fact that I lived the first five years of my life in Manhattan—I loathe them with a fiery passion, but that doesn’t mean I can sign off on Alan Ball’s glib caricature or Sam Mendes’ tone-deaf direction. The adult characters are overstated and lifeless—Kevin Spacey’s id-less turn as a sexually repressed dad is the best onscreen evidence for viewing him as a closet case, and Annette Bening’s shrill, mannered mom is a misogynist sock-puppet. And while Conrad Hall’s cinematography is pretty enough, it amounts to lipstick on a pig’s rotting corpse. Mendes did solid work with his young actors, especially Wes Bentley, but their performances were overlooked in the rush to cast the movie’s facile satire as profound social comment.
I didn’t have any particular affinity for the original television series upon which 1998’s The Avengers was based. And, by all accounts, that’s a good thing. Because let’s face it: There are plenty of movies that are hopelessly bad, but few as staggeringly awful as this film. It’s one thing to trash something like Plan 9 From Outer Space, which somehow transcends the limits of bad film into something endearing. But surely a film starring Voldemort, The Bride, and James Freakin’ Bond, based on a beloved (albeit cult) franchise should be at least baseline competent. Then again, maybe there’s a fantastic version of this cinematic debacle somewhere on the cutting-room floor. The conflicts don’t make sense. Revelations are achieved without actual onscreen effort. Plot points are introduced and dropped in a manner that would make Glee green with envy. And what sits onscreen is incomplete at best, downright incoherent at worst. Apparently there are still a small, devoted number of fans eager to see the original vision director Jeremiah Chechik had for The Avengers. I’ll just continue to pray I don’t accidentally come across it while channel-surfing.
I didn’t see Natural Born Killers until I was in my twenties, and doing so reminded me of what probably made teenagers of the ’90s (including myself) so insufferable. It’s the most annoying ’90s-type movie. Perhaps had I actually seen it when I was a moody, faux-philosophic flannel-wearing high-schooler, I would have found it a cutting commentary on violence, the media, and everything that’s, like, wrong with the world. Instead, I saw a film that seemed to try to shock more than it actually shocked, one that relied on gore and noise to send a message without actually relying upon a real message. Are Mickey and Mallory a product of society or is society a product of them? Do you get it? They’re rock stars! We’re murderers in our own way! Wake up and smell the reality, man! Ultimately, while I appreciate the gist of the film’s satire, I think it’s too much of a product of its time, wherein a frequent underlying message of lazy pop culture was, “If you don’t like this, you’re a mainstream square who just doesn’t get it.”
I’m not sure what makes me maddest about The Mod Squad: that it was an unnecessary attempt to cash in on the dwindling name recognition of the old ’60s TV show about counterculture cops, or that it was a lazy attempt to appeal to the slacker/grunge generation by having stars Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, and Claire Danes mumble and mope their way through some half-assed plot about corrupt cops, a big drug deal, and a prostitution ring. Whenever the film hits a wall, the heroes turn a corner and accidentally run into the bad guys, who conveniently explain what’s going to happen next. I remember one scene where Ribisi captures the bad guys’ scheme on tape, and when he listens to the playback, it’s like eavesdropping on the screenwriters’ story conference. Then at the end of the film, the three principals gather on a pier to decide whether to continue as undercover cops, and they all shrug their assent. That kind of burning commitment shows in every frame of The Mod Squad.
Oh, Powder. Even if you didn’t have the stench of the director’s pedophilia about you, you’d still stink on your own. I remember exiting the darkened theater that fateful day in 1995, the afterimage of the film’s nauseatingly pasty protagonist burned into my retinae. Also etched into my brain: the suckiness. The story of a mutant, albino outcast who can kinda control electromagnetic energy—and who is telepathic and also the smartest kid on earth, just for the fuck of it—the film is worse than the worst imaginable story arc of X-Men. As the titular lead, Sean Patrick Flanery has all the profundity of a Hallmark card and all the charisma of a stale marshmallow; meanwhile, director Victor Salva is somehow allowed to work in a scene of teenage-boy-ogling. And the ending is nothing more than a mock-poetic cop-out. There’s one thing we can thank Powder for, though: While there’s no hard proof of this, it seems exceedingly likely that its hairless, electrically charged hero was the inspiration for the No! No! hair-remover.
I was one of the many film aficionados caught up in the excitement caused by Quentin Tarantino’s arrival on the scene with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, and I was further charmed by True Romance, so it would be in no way an exaggeration to say that I was basically worshipping at the man’s altar when he released Pulp Fiction. Plus, although I know a lot of people find him annoying (and there are certainly times when I agree with them), I came to enjoy Tarantino when he was in front of the camera, which was one of the reasons why I made the mistake of thinking Destiny Turns On The Radio was going to be worth seeing. Perhaps it was always inevitable that Tarantino would end up being involved in a subpar clone of a Tarantino film—conceptually, it seems like something he’d totally get off on—but man, it’s really, really subpar. Only a few weeks ago, I mentioned in an AVQ&A that I often have a soft spot for films simply because they have interesting people involved, and Destiny seems to qualify on that front: Beyond Tarantino, it also features Dylan McDermott, Nancy Travis, James Belushi, David Cross, Bobcat Goldthwait, and highly viable Random Roles candidate Tracey Walter. But nope, it’s far too tedious a film to coast simply on its cast. I’m still not sure how it manages to try too hard and be a complete bore at the same time, but it’s so useless that it marked the last time I ever went out of my way to see a film simply because I thought, “Well, if Tarantino’s in it, I’m sure it’ll at least be worth watching.”
One thing Hollywood has excelled at doing in the ’00s is protecting its franchises: Blockbuster series like Harry Potter, Twilight, Paranormal Activity, and almost certainly The Hunger Games may change directors from one entry to the next, but the template will remain stubbornly the same. It may result in mediocre films, but there’s too much at stake for Iron Man 2 to be a radical departure from Iron Man, or anything else in the Marvel universe. So let us marvel at the ineptitude of Batman & Robin and Speed 2: Cruise Control, two notoriously lousy sequels that could never get made under today’s system—and two big reasons to feel happy about that system. Though the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman movies look like the Adam West Batman compared to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Joel Schumacher’s attempt to camp up the series, first in Batman Forever and then in Batman & Robin, felt like a step backward even before Schumacher’s empty-headedness and visual incoherence came into play. There’s nothing I can say about the missteps in Batman & Robin that hasn’t been said many times already—in short: George Clooney, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, the useless additions of Batgirl and Robin, the flashing neon color scheme, nipples on the Bat-suit, etc.—but it strikes me most as being completely off-mission. So too Speed 2: Cruise Control, which couldn’t bring back Keanu Reeves (he was replaced by Jason Patric, who looks hugely uncomfortable) and more galling still, takes place entirely on a cruise ship. Because when you think of “speed,” you think of a bloated, dock-hogging ocean liner.
Even though I was never a big science-fiction nut, even as a kid, I was a big fan of the original Star Wars trilogy. By turning the old cowboy serial genre into an SF epic, George Lucas created indelible characters and told stories with enough action, light comedy, and dramatic tension to make any 6-to-12-year-old’s heart sing. So, like everyone else, I was hoping beyond hope that Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace was going to carry on that tradition, introducing us to new characters while helping us say hello to an old droid friend or two. What I got wasn’t necessarily a crushing disappointment at the time, but I walked out of the theater a bit put off, wondering why none of the new characters —young Anakin, young Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Padme, Darth Maul, and the infernally annoying Jar Jar Binks—pulled me in like the gang in the original movies did. Was it because I was 28 instead of 6? Or was it because the characters, dialogue, and story were just plain boring? My questions weren’t answered until three years later, when Episode II—Attack Of The Clones came out and confirmed to me that it wasn’t my age that was the problem, it was that Lucas somehow became deadly boring in the quarter-century between the two trilogies. It made me hate Phantom Menace all the more in retrospect, because Lucas squandered an opportunity to make another legendary trilogy.
I spend most Saturdays riffing on bad movies with friends over Skype, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula is one of our favorite subjects; the horrible acting and loopy script make for great targets, while the lush cinematography and practical effects help the whole thing go down easy. I would even go so far as to say that while most of the rest of the cast vacillates between drugged woodenness and manic self-parody (Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing is campier than a brain-eating Hannibal), Gary Oldman’s turn as the tortured count isn’t half bad. He almost manages to invest some dignity and loss into all those elaborate costumes and makeup. Problem is, Francis Ford Coppola went to great lengths to promise a movie that was the most faithful adaptation of the source novel yet, and his version of Dracula is completely at odds with the lecherous, despicable original version. Stoker’s novel is a repressed fever dream of barely restrained sexual terror, combined with a sense of optimism in the power of modernity to conquer old fears. Coppola’s film goes out of its way to mock its heroes (“I was impotent with fear,” Keanu Reeves chirps), while transforming one of the genre’s most familiar monsters into a doomed romantic warrior who also likes to nail his reincarnated wife’s best friend, just ’cause. BSD never makes sense of its multiple ambitions, as Coppola tries to simultaneously subvert the book and remain true to it, and fails miserably on all counts; there’s no one to care about, and nothing is scary. It’s a film I hate for its emptiness, even while remaining entranced by its beauty.
As a film-festival devotee who got about four hours’ sleep between 1990 and 2000, God only knows which was the worst of all the movies I saw in that decade. The single worst movie I saw made by talented professionals who secured theatrical distribution may have been Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, which turns a timeless, much-adapted classic story into something that feels like a month in the burn ward. But if I had the power to stop one movie from being made by going back in time and shooting the director in the head, it would probably be JFK. With its misguided ambitions, endless running time, hammerlock on stupidity, elementary-school-play obviousness, and conga line of celebrity cameos in place of a cast of actors playing characters (Coach Morris Buttermaker is Senator Russell Long!), the movie itself is simply the It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of conspiracy pictures. But as Don Corleone would say, I have selfish reasons for my pick. I was living in New Orleans in the ’90s, and in 1990, I first heard about Jim Garrison’s railroading of Clay Shaw and became interested enough in it to research and work on a screenplay about it. I thought it had the makings of a Kafkaesque black comedy about a middle-aged, closeted gay man selected as the patsy for a corrupt, ambitious D.A. who has been conducting a secret, fruitless investigation into the President’s assassination on the taxpayers’ nickel and has to make it appear that he hasn’t been working a dry well when the newspapers break the story. I abandoned the idea because I decided that it was too obscure and strange to attract an audience so many years later. Oops! But because was living in that courtroom in my head when Oliver Stone got hold of the story, I was perhaps uniquely qualified to take what he did with it personally. That movie also turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving, because a decade later, I was still meeting tourists who heard about the case through Stone’s epic piece of shit and thought Garrison really had been onto something. (Locals who knew something about the man and his “investigation” were more likely to be toying with the idea of digging up his grave so they could piss on his corpse.) They seemed to assume that a powerful politician doesn’t just randomly accuse a civic leader of having whacked the president on the basis of literally no evidence at all. To adapt a line from Looper, in a different city, that would be a fair assumption.
When word got out that Gus Van Sant was remaking Psycho, I got unduly excited, mostly because I misunderstood the nature of the project. Somehow, I got the idea that he wasn’t just shooting the original script, but also intended to precisely replicate Hitchcock’s movie in every possible way, from composition and camera movements to niceties of wardrobe and set design. This sounded to me (and still does, really) like a fascinating postmodern experiment, and the idea that a director as notable as Van Sant was attempting it with a cast that included Julianne Moore, Anne Heche (pre-crazytown), Viggo Mortensen, and William H. Macy—and, okay, Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, but I was willing to be surprised—sent my expectations into overdrive. The film opened on Friday, December 4, 1998, and in preparation, I watched the 1960 version (which I’d already seen several times) on December 1, 2 and 3, doing my best to commit every tiny detail to memory. The basic punchline is that the remake was awful, deviating from its source in ways that ranged from silly (Moore’s community-theater reinterpretation of Lila as an angry lesbian) to outright embarrassing (Norman jerking off while spying on Marion through the motel peephole). But I’m pretty sure I was the only person sitting there thinking stuff like “No!! No! The car salesman approaches Marion from the right side of the frame, not from the left! Are you insane?!?”
Next: Read our first 20 films of the ’90s here, our second 20 films of the ’90s here, and our top 10 films of the ’90s here. See what personal favorites didn't make the top 50 here and listen to what we have to say about how the decade changed cinema in Reasonable Discussions.