Incontinent horndogs and vibrating panties. Sociopaths passed off as delightfully quirky. Third and fourth sequels to horror films nobody liked in the first place. From mainstream messes to intolerable indies, these are the movies that made 2009 that much harder to stomach.
19. Jennifer’s Body
The big reason given for Diablo Cody winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Juno was her colorful dialogue, a stylized mix of pop-culture riffing and the made-up adolescent slang of movies like Heathers. Jennifer’s Body suggests another theory entirely: When unchecked by authentic characters and emotions—like, say, a confused, pregnant teenager trying to do the right thing for herself and her unborn child—those same Cody-isms sound designed to make viewers claw out their eyes. What might have been a smart, femme-centered horror-comedy along the lines of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the TV series) and Ginger Snaps morphs into a sounding board for Cody’s latest quips. But if you’ve ever wanted to hear “move on dot org” used in a sentence, you’re welcome to it.
18. The End Of Poverty?
It wouldn’t be an A.V. Club “Worst-Of” list without at least one heavy-handed leftist documentary, the kind that preaches so stridently to the choir that it dares sympathetic viewers to switch sides. Narrated by professional lefty Martin Sheen, the film is full of strange, seemingly self-evidently wrong ideas, like the notion that it would cost a mere $20 billion to cut global poverty in half. Wait, what? A hodgepodge of bloodless, achingly dull talking heads, indigenous people talking about being exploited by evil, blood-sucking capitalists, and reductive anti-free-market rhetoric, The End Of Poverty? serves as a warning that terrible, incompetently made leftist documentaries will outlast the presidency of progressive bête noire George W. Bush.
17. Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans
Question: How can a film starring Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen—both fully invested in their silly-ass roles—be so terribly bad? Answer: It’s yet another completely unnecessary take on Romeo & Juliet. Bonus answer: It tells a story that was already fully covered in detail in a different Underworld movie, so even the hardest-core of Underworld fans already know the basic beats. Which means this series installment is just about watching so-so CGI werewolves bounce around amid cheap-looking sets, while people like Nighy and Sheen ham it up amid the increasingly samey blue-black color palette that’s become de rigueur for the dark-fantasy film genre. Rise Of The Lycans isn’t just incompetent, it’d be a frontrunner for any Least Essential Film Of The Year award.
16. The Final Destination
In a way, The Final Destination isn’t any worse than the three Final Destination movies that preceded it. The problem is that it’s putting even more money and special-effects prowess into telling the exact same note-for-note story that was fresh in the first film and has been pointless ever since: Someone has a vision of impending death and flees the scene, saving a bunch of people, who then die one by one anyway, through a series of increasingly ridiculous, maleficent “coincidences.” The only surprises come from things flying at the audience’s face in 3-D, and even those shocks get old fast. There’s an ugly slasher-movie mean streak to these films, which are all about watching people getting eviscerated in remarkably grotesque ways. At first, The Final Destination is enjoyably cartoony, but the filmmakers soon run out of humor and creativity and settle down to long, dull sequences of inanimate objects falling together in the exact right combinations to kill off a bunch of generally uncommitted actors playing uninteresting characters. So what?
15. Alien Trespass
Fun: Low-budget science-fiction movies from the 1950s. Not fun: Straight-faced apings of same that might work as four-minute YouTube clips, but feel like infinity squared at feature length. Director R.W. Goodwin, an X-Files vet, and star Eric McCormack both ought to have better things to do than creating the film equivalent of a bad night out seeing campy regional theater, right?
14. The Burning Plain
The Burning Plain, the directorial debut from the screenwriter of 21 Grams and Babel, is a serious movie. How serious? It has Charlize Theron without makeup, slashing her arms with rocks and engaging in numbing, desultory sex with random strangers. It has a Big Tragic Secret that’s obvious from reel one, but takes 100 excruciating minutes to reveal itself. It’s told completely out of order to give the illusion of novelistic profundity. Whenever you hear Joe Multiplex complain about the insufferable arthouse film of the popular imagination, Guillermo Arriaga’s movie is exactly the sort of stiff, pretentious, heavily fussed-over movie he has in mind. (Mitigating factor: A.O. Scott’s hilarious takedown of it on the new-and-improved At The Movies.)
13. Confessions Of A Shopaholic
Arriving at the depths of the current recession, Confessions Of A Shopaholic looked desperately out of touch. But that wouldn’t have mattered if it were even a little funny. Star Isla Fisher has an inhuman amount of natural charm, but she’s given dire material as a spend-happy twit who talks to mannequins when not bumbling her way into success in the magazine industry. There’s nothing wrong with frothy escapism, but this one’s all froth and no escape.
12. Bride Wars
Anne Hathaway went from the sublime to the ridiculously awful by following her remarkable performance in Rachel Getting Married with the loathsome Bride Wars. It’s a laugh-free, ugly, broad comedy about a pair of accomplished best friends who devolve into psychotic enemies when they book the same hotel on the same day for their upcoming nuptials. Kate Hudson erases fond memories of Almost Famous with a grating turn as a professional barracuda who will do anything to destroy her formerly mild-mannered closest chum. That’s women for you: dangle a wedding in front of them that will make them into pretty, pretty princesses for a day, and they instantly turn into screeching she-devils.
11. I Love You, Beth Cooper
Based on Larry Doyle’s novel, I Love You, Beth Cooper has a pretty strong premise: What if the shy high-school valedictorian, in a fit of pique, used his speech to declare his love for the cheerleader he never had the courage to talk to before? And when he actually got to know her, would he be able to reconcile the real girl with the impossibly high standards of his fantasy girl? It would be perfect for someone like Judd Apatow, who’s made identifiable awkwardness his stock in trade, but director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Stepmom) seems to have picked up all his insights into adolescence from bad John Hughes films and ’80s slobs-vs.-snobs comedies. It doesn’t help that his largely unknown lead actor, Paul Rust, is a 28-year-old who doesn’t look a day over 30. The eight-year age difference between Rust and his object of affection, Hayden Panettiere, suggests that if he can’t date her, he could perhaps babysit her.
10. Downloading Nancy
Maria Bello plays a deeply unhappy woman who escapes her wretched life by cutting and burning herself, and by having creepy sexual encounters with men she meets on the Internet. Jason Patric plays one of those men: a sadist who agrees to torture and kill Bello. This is a movie about miserable people wallowing in their misery, but Downloading Nancy is too self-serious to sting. Its characters are duds, with predictably bleak backstories that fail to flesh out all the scenes of violent degradation. Downloading Nancy is the worst kind of exploitation film: the kind that doesn’t know it’s an exploitation film, but instead thinks it’s saying something profound.
9. Old Dogs
Much worse than a ball-to-the-groin kiddie comedy starring Robin Williams and a delicate-looking John Travolta ought to be, Old Dogs strings together one slapstick situation after another and calls it a plot. Worse, it cuts the yuks with sticky sentimentality. Most movies would be too ashamed to use a dog’s funeral to tug at the heartstrings. Here, it almost counts as a subtle moment, sandwiched between scenes of Williams as a human puppet and co-star Seth Green being cradled by a gorilla. Making it extra sad: It’s Bernie Mac’s last movie, the least fortunate swan song since Orson Welles’ turn in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie.
8. Fired Up
Much like I Love You, Beth Cooper, this cheerleading comedy also forgoes the gentle self-deprecation of the Apatow school in favor of retro-’80s crassness, but in the slobs-vs.-snobs divide, it squarely falls on the side of the snobs. The spectacularly obnoxious horndogs in Fired Up, played by Nicholas D’Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen, are cool, confident football stars and skirt-chasers, like two proto-Van Wilders joined at the hip. Their decision to forego athletics in order to attend cheerleading camp—figuring, not unwisely, that the male-to-female ratio will tilt heavily in their favor—leads to a creepily predatory comedy where the boys more or less have the run of the place. (Only the head cheerleader resists; the other 299 are open for business.) The silver lining: The film’s box-office failure insured that “You have to risk it to get the biscuit” was not the catchphrase on everyone’s lips in 2009.
7. The Ugly Truth
Katherine Heigl’s history of making ill-advised, self-aggrandizing comments in public has made her a figure of scorn, which is too bad, because Heigl actually has a winning screen presence. But she doesn’t make it any easier on herself when she stars in witless, regressive chick-flicks like The Ugly Truth, in which she plays a career woman too fussy to achieve her true purpose in life: landing a man. Gerard Butler plays the loutish self-help guru who helps Heigl tap into her inner sex goddess, but nothing about their boy-meets/loses/etc.-girl story has anything to do with how actual grown-ups behave. Like too many romantic comedies these days, The Ugly Truth is about the irritating quirks and shallow goals of stock characters.
6. All About Steve
Producer Sandra Bullock traded in her America’s Sweetheart persona for a bizarre, tone-deaf character turn as a deeply disturbed crossword-puzzle constructor (one habitually clad in lipstick-red hooker boots that make her toes feel “like 10 friends out on a camping trip”) who stalks strapping cameraman Bradley Cooper after an aborted one-night stand. Bullock plays the kind of grating, delusional, motor-mouthed, excruciatingly awkward lunatic people cross the street to avoid, yet the filmmakers inexplicably expect audiences to find her quirky and delightful.
5. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
Michael Bay’s botch of The Transformers (cue Comic Book Guy screeching, “That adaptation of a toy-based ’80s cartoon violated the core principles of the franchise!”) set the bar prohibitively low, yet its even-worse sequel still managed to limbo merrily under it. Freed from unpacking the exposition endemic to launching a tentpole franchise, director Michael Bay was able to indulge his love of incoherent action pieces, T&A, mindless sexism—most notably in a sexy, scantily clad college co-ed who turns out to be a killer robot—and offensive racial stereotyping in the form of two jive-talking, buck-toothed robots who might as well be named Stepin Fetchitbot and RoboSleep N’Eat. Oh well, at least it didn’t do so well at the box office that a third installment is inevitable.
4. Paper Heart
Comedian/performance artist/flibbertigibbet Charlene Yi dithers over whether she’ll ever experience the emotion we humans call “love,” while director Nicholas Jasenovec cuts between scenes of his star interviewing everyday Americans and blatantly staged scenes of her embarking on a new relationship. From the “what is love” premise to the “what is real?” structure, Paper Heart plays like a movie dreamed up by people who were very, very high at the time. Which would be fine if they weren’t also the kind of people who think of “love” in an elementary-school, passing-notes-at-lunch kind of way, and not in a way that has anything to do with commitment, responsibility, sharing, nurturing, and—not incidentally—sex. When they grow up (or sober up), Yi and Jasenovec ought to find this movie awfully embarrassing.
3. I Hate Valentine’s Day
In the bizarre vanity project I Hate Valentine’s Day, writer-director Nia Vardalos plays a woman who adores the giddy infatuation of a new romance, but can’t stand the idea of commitment. So her crazy-eyed flower-shop proprietor subjects the men unfortunate enough to date her to a bizarre series of ground rules. She’ll only go on five carefully orchestrated dates, then must say goodbye forever, presumably so she can spend more time with her sassy gay sidekicks, who are quick with quips and advice. But what happens when she stumbles upon an impossibly perfect man (My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s John Corbett) who angrily demands to be with her forever on account of her being so irresistible? Like All About Steve, I Hate Valentine’s Day tries to pass off mental illness as an adorable eccentricity. Instead, this cinematic equivalent of a particularly dire Cathy cartoon is so nonsensically convoluted and narcissistic that it almost plays like a parody of high-concept romantic comedies.
The seeming product of a game of indie-movie-themed Mad Libs, Gigantic casts Paul Dano as a mattress salesman who wants to fulfill a lifelong dream of adopting a Chinese baby, when he isn’t being attacked at random by Zach Galifianakis. Zooey Deschanel plays his love interest, the dourest Manic Pixie Dream Girl ever committed to film. Both appear too disaffected to get out of bed in the morning, much less fall in love, which may be why director Matt Aselton crowds the margins with characters played by John Goodman, Ed Asner, and others who look like they’ve wandered in from Little Miss Sunshine’s deleted scenes. Anyone who’s wanted to see Asner tripping on mushrooms should seek it out immediately. All others are advised to steer clear.
1. Miss March
When a hip-hop impresario named “Horsedick.MPEG” is by far the funniest thing your movie has going for it, you have not made a very funny comedy. The directorial debut of Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore, two members of the sketch-comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know, has one of the dumber high-concept hooks in recent memory: A virginal teen (Cregger) gets knocked out moments before getting laid, then wakes up years later to discover his girlfriend is a Playboy centerfold whose bedpost has more notches than Wilt Chamberlain’s. But before this blue-balled Rip Van Winkle and his noxious, Spuds McKenzie-like party-animal buddy (Moore) can embark on a cross-country journey to find (and cane?) her, his atrophied body has to recover. And you know what that means? He can’t control his bladder! Running incontinence jokes set the lowbrow standard, but Miss March goes further by chasing its tastelessness with an equally potent swig of good old-fashioned sexism. A scene involving a stripper pole, oral sex, epilepsy, strobe lights, and a fork needn’t be seen to be believed.
Bonus stinker: The Spirit
Technically, Frank Miller’s laughably leaden film adaptation of Will Eisner’s groundbreaking superhero comic was released in 2008, but since it came out on December 24, long after deadline for our 2008 film pieces, it didn’t make the Worst Of 2008 list. Which is a pity, because it assuredly ranks among them. Essentially a clumsy attempt to ape Sin City—a stylish adaptation of Miller’s own comic, co-directed with Robert Rodriguez—The Spirit isn’t anywhere near as close to the content or tone of its source material as Sin City was, and it looks a lot cheaper. The alternately hammy and robotic acting and dreadful script don’t help. It’s pretty clear what Miller had on his mind throughout, much as it’s been clear from his comics over at least the last decade: babes with exaggerated anatomy and fetish-model wardrobes. The whole thing is essentially one clumsy masturbatory fantasy, and while that kind of thing has its place, watching Miller draw it out of Eisner’s beloved Boy Scout comic is way too much like watching someone with no sense of narrative or dramatic timing scrawl out sex-heavy fan fiction about their favorite children’s book. It’s so bad that we still remember the pain more than a year later, so technically, it counts as one of the cinematic strikes against 2009.