"There appears to be an event happening!": The worst films of 2008
17. Smart People
Here's another indie that's been workshopped into inertness, featuring a cast of famous faces who seem to be quietly congratulating themselves for appearing in a movie that "really says something," even though it's only speaking to a rarified circle of Hollywood types who confuse clichés with meaning. Dennis Quaid plays a literature professor and Ellen Page plays his young Republican daughter; both are dealing with the death of a wife and mother reportedly loved by all. It's a measure of how miserable they are that it takes two disruptive characters to snap them to life: Quaid's layabout adopted brother, played by Thomas Haden Church, gets Page to smoke pot, drink beer, and let go of the past, while Sarah Jessica Parker plays a former Quaid student (now an ER doctor) who convinces him that it's okay to listen to other people once in a while. But since everyone in the movie is a caricature to begin with, their transitions to human warmth are hardly moving, any more than it's inspiring to watch an accountant fill out a ledger.
16. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford's fourth go-around with the archeologist/adventurer starts well enough, but quickly gets lost in the wilds of dumb gags, questionable CGI, lazy performances, and a grand finale that's anything but. Watching it is like watching a lovely balloon slowly deflate into a sad lump of hackery. "Knowledge was their treasure," huh? Go away now.
15. The Eye
The Jessica Alba remake of the Pang brothers' stylish horror hit was excruciatingly unnecessary, but also just plain lousy. Alba has all the acting chops of a really attractive mannequin decked out in a clingy sweater. The "scary" scenes where she experiences creepy visions courtesy of her, um, haunted donated retinas go on way too long, past the point of fear and well into tedium; some of them stretch out as though directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud are just presenting a reel of unedited dailies. And the whole thing is poorly conceived: If her eyes are haunted, why are so many of her hallucinations auditory? But the obvious problem is that the film is so draggy that it gives viewers downtime to wonder about such things.
14. Soul Men
Under most circumstances, an ugly, hateful aggregation of Viagra jokes, broad stereotypes, and gross-out sex gags would merely be depressing. But the unexpected deaths of Soul Men star Bernie Mac and co-star Isaac Hayes rendered the film's inability to score a single laugh or moment of genuine warmth something closer to tragic, especially given the enormous squandered potential of the film's terrific premise and amazing cast. In a plot that owes a heavy unacknowledged debt to The Sunshine Boys, Soul Men casts Mac and Samuel Jackson as squabbling, washed-up soul stars who reluctantly reunite to play at a memorial for ex-bandmate John Legend, who lucks into playing a role with no dialogue. The film accomplishes the formidable feat of draining all the joy from soul music. Shameful, shameful, shameful.
13. Nobel Son
An enjoyably scenery-chewing turn by Alan Rickman as a horndog, utterly unethical Nobel Prize laureate is all that stands between the headache-inducingly awful thriller Nobel Son and complete worthlessness. Rickman leads a random cast in the pointlessly transgressive tale of a kidnapping gone awry. Mary Steenburgen, Ted Danson, Bill Pullman, Danny DeVito, and Eliza Dushku are among the cast's big names, but director Randall Miller inexplicably hands most of the dramatic heavy lifting to the low-wattage, charisma-impaired duo of Bryan Greenberg and Shawn Hatosy. The less said about Dushku's turn as a mysterious open-mic poet who calls herself City Hall, the better.
12. The Life Before Her Eyes
Note to director Vadim Perelman: It isn't a big twist if you telegraph it in the title, in the heavy-handed, portentous tone, in "arty" shots of rotting animal corpses, in slow-motion flashbacks, in overwhelmingly dire music, and in nonstop hints that are meant to feel sadly ironic once the big reveal finally rolls around. The Life Before Her Eyes' one saving grace is Evan Rachel Wood's performance as a spunky high-schooler who wants out of her small town and her oppressive small-town image, but who grows up to be the dour Uma Thurman, still living in her hometown and endlessly reliving an old confrontation with a deranged kid who shot up her school. What's meant to be a mystery—the question of how one became the other—is drowned under syrupy repetition and seemingly endless chunks of clumsy foreshadowing, which feels like Perelman is sitting behind each and every viewer, poking them every 30 seconds and asking "Have you figured it out yet? Huh? Huh? Huh?"
11. Chapter 27
Jared Leto gives a performance of great quantity and nonexistent quality in this laughably overwrought fact-based drama about Mark David Chapman, the J.D. Salinger super-fan who blasted his way into the history books when he murdered John Lennon in 1980. Aided in his crimes against subtlety and nuance by the purple prose of a heinously overwritten script, Leto plays the infamous assassin as a lisping, melodramatic Southern belle who's half Blanche Dubois, half creepy stalker. It's never an encouraging sign when Lindsey Lohan out-acts a guy nakedly angling for an Oscar, or at least an Independent Spirit award.
You know what Bill Maher thinks is stupid? Religion. No exceptions. Don't agree with him? Well, you're stupid too. He repeats this message for 90 minutes, via successively cheaper gags and easier targets, before ending the film with a sermon as filled with windy piety as any of his targets. Maher can be a sharp observer, but here he brought a club instead of a scalpel.9. Good Dick
In Marianna Palka's quirked-out romantic comedy, homeless video-store employee Jason Ritter becomes smitten with a mousy, porn-obsessed customer played by Palka. Ritter is the kind of cutesy emo-boy who sleeps on Palka's couch, then wakes up early so he can tie a string to her foot, attached to a thank-you note in the other room. And she's the kind of impenetrably offbeat gal who doesn't think it's strange when he insists on washing her hair before he'll let her wear a piece of jewelry he wants to share. Not a single line or gesture in Good Dick has anything to do with the world in which real people live, but it's just another day in increasingly irrelevant Indieville.
8. In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
What would a worst-of list be without Uwe Boll, the maestro of schlocky videogame-to-movie adaptations made possible by a loophole in German tax law? Boll's In The Name Of The King is his naked attempt to do the Lord Of The Rings trilogy on the cheap, though duped moviegoers had to pay just as much to see it as to watch one of Peter Jackson's sprawling epics. The budget-cutting measures are evident across the board—beware the clumsily patched-in CGI backdrops—but as usual, Boll's cast of slummers and has-beens really elevates the film to high camp. There's the king, played by a beard-stroking Burt Reynolds, and listless turns by former it-girls Claire Forlani and Leelee Sobieski, but no one can top Matthew Lillard for sheer bug-eyed insanity. The more his fey, sniveling villain drinks, the more unhinged his scenery-chewing improvisation becomes.
7. Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Hand it to Morgan Spurlock: The man has a talent for gimmicky documentary hooks. After gorging on McDonald's for a month to prove that fast food isn't good for you in Super Size Me, Spurlock goes on to chronicle his efforts to track down the elusive Osama bin Laden, in an adventure that takes him all around the Muslim world. On its face, the title question isn't bad: Why hasn't America done more to capture the 9/11 mastermind instead of getting bogged down in an unrelated war in Iraq? But what might have been a probing look at the distractions and failures of the war on terror becomes a lowest-common-denominator primer on Muslim culture. The bottom line seems to be, "Hey, not all people in the Middle East are terrorists looking to destroy America. Most of them are just like you and me!" Are there really people out there who don't know that already? If so, they definitely aren't the audience for a Morgan Spurlock movie.
Thanks to the stalwart support of church groups and evangelical Christians, Kirk Cameron's metaphor-choked melodrama become one of the year's biggest sleeper hits, parlaying a tiny half-million-dollar budget into over $32 million and counting. But has there ever been a blander depiction of marital conflict than the one between Cameron and wife Erin Bethea in this movie? As his marriage flounders and divorce seems imminent, Cameron turns to "The Love Dare," a 40-day, faith-driven guide to patching up his relationship and returning to the godly fold. The guide doesn't cover the obvious: If Cameron would stop acting like a petulant jerk and wash a dish every once in a while, the relationship problems would end. Still, his many temper tantrums lead to moments of unintended hilarity, including the scene where he wallops his computer monitor—the source of his obsession with boats and Internet pornography—with a baseball bat. Take that, machine!
5. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
There are terrible movies, and then there are terrible movies that cause harm to society by feeding into its ignorance. Nathan Frankowski's odious anti-evolution documentary belongs in the latter category. Even those who buy the thesis that star Ben Stein puts forward—that creationists are being unfairly locked out of the scientific establishment—should be disappointed by how Expelled spends almost no time explaining the specifics of intelligent-design theory, or presenting well-researched data to establish it as a legitimate challenger to evolution science. Instead, Frankowski and Stein rely on the same old Michael Moore-style cheap shots to prop up their pathetically shallow case. Few moments in cinema in 2008 were as shameless and disgusting as the Expelled sequence where Stein solemnly visits a Nazi death camp and unsubtly links "survival of the fittest" theory to the Holocaust. Don't worry, Darwinists: If the "bad as Hitler" argument is the best that ID pushers can muster, you have nothing to worry about.
4. Meet Dave
From Eddie Murphy's painfully broad performance as a human-sized spaceship stranded on Earth to juvenile body-function jokes like "There's been a small gas leak silent, but not deadly," Meet Dave is as obvious and unsightly as a pimple. The presence of occasionally funny people like Ed Helms and Judah Friedlander in this movie only proves that there's a glut of middling TV comedians now making their way into film, and that without a captain to guide them, they inevitably crash.
3. The Hottie And The Nottie
Paris Hilton's "acting" was once limited to bit parts and direct-to-DVD comedies, but this little monster wandered into theaters briefly. Behind hooded, uncaring eyes, Hilton helps her hirsute, mole-ridden best friend through an ugly-duckling-to-swan transformation. Hilton's negative charisma proves a bigger turn-off than some of the grossest latex appliqués outside of the Saw series, which says everything you need to know about the movie.
2. The Happening
M. Night Shyamalan's breakout movie The Sixth Sense was a massive box-office and critical success, heralded as the arrival of a terrific new talent. But as the years drag on, Shyamalan has proved unwilling to step away from all the hallmarks of that first hit—spooky twists, surreal interludes, a chokingly portentous mood, and meek characters who deliver every wheedling line with strained intensity. The tone that was perfect for a ghost story and was at least novel in the superhero tale Unbreakable was only fitfully apt in the pseudo-fairy tale The Village, and downright out of place in Signs' science-fiction world. And it was awful and laughable in the pulpy horror story The Happening, in which (spoiler!) plants start releasing a toxin that makes people kill themselves, such that stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel can only survive by speaking to each other in pained, placating, bug-eyed whines. Their performances are so idiosyncratic to Shyamalan movies that he had to have coached and crafted them, but why? In what way does a castrated, fatally insincere Wahlberg and a self-important tone enhance what's already ludicrous, overwrought, poorly scripted material? Shyamalan once looked like a brilliantly innovative stylist, but these days he's starting to look like an incompetent craftsman with only one tool, which he keeps twisting to increasingly inappropriate tasks.
1. Witless Protection
Larry The Cable Guy normally gets a pass for the incredible shittiness of his movies because he's an unfunny, obnoxious bore, and no one expects any better from him. But special attention must be paid to Witless Protection, if only because this shabbily assembled turd represents an era in this country's history that we're (hopefully) about to leave behind. Larry The Cable Guy's redneck minstrel act was a perfect fit for George W. Bush's America, a place where reason, empathy, and basic decency were derided as elitist qualities by a loudmouth extremist minority that pretended to represent Middle American values. But as 2008 draws to a close, a mainstream comedy that includes a scene where the "hero" refers to an Arab-American as "Pamperhead" without an immediate comeuppance seems to belong to another, hopefully distant era. The next time you want to be reminded of the good old days of illegal wiretapping, torture, widespread economic hardship, and environmental neglect, Witless Protection will be there waiting for you.
Tomorrow: The A.V. Club film staff selects the best films of 2008.