So far, The A.V. Club has looked at the best films of 2012 and put a spotlight on the films we consider to be the year’s most essential. Here are our picks for the worst the year had to offer.
20. We Have A Pope
Nanni Moretti’s Vatican dramedy, We Have A Pope, considers what would happen if The College Of Cardinals selected a new pontiff who didn’t really want the job. That’s a fine premise, but it’s sabotaged by Moretti’s lack of interest in the cardinals’ politics and personality conflicts, and his preference for moments of forced whimsy—such as a brief musical interlude and a sequence where the cardinals take part in a volleyball tournament. The bland therapist-speak throughout the movie is partly satirical, and partly indicative of how broadly Moretti has sketched both the new pope and the people trying to help him. This is meant to be a movie about the pope as a man, but Moretti shows little fascination with the actual papacy—or with humanity, for that matter.
19. Think Like A Man
Tim Story’s awful but extremely popular Think Like A Man brings Family Feud host/relationship guru Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man to the big screen with a super-slick, super-empty ensemble comedy that’s less an adaptation of Harvey’s slim, chauvinistic guide to finding and keeping a man than a mindless, mercenary celebration of Harvey’s bestseller and its smug, regressive take on gender politics. The film treats Harvey’s book as a Rosetta stone that unlocks the secrets of the male psyche and allows a group of accomplished, uniformly gorgeous black women to get the upper hand in their relationships with various stunted man-children before the fellows acquire this magical tome and turn the tables on their commitment-obsessed partners. Think Like A Man wastes a talented, attractive cast on an asinine screenplay that treats hoary gender clichés as profound existential truths. In another instance of the reverse meritocracy at play, this cynical, pandering romantic comedy was so successful that a sequel is already in the works.
As Monty Python fans well know, there’s nothing as painful as a poor imitation of a Monty Python routine, and what makes the A Liar’s Autobiography especially frustrating is that there are actual Pythons involved, starting with the late Graham Chapman, whose cheeky memoir is adapted in this 3-D cartoon. The film uses a variety of artists and styles to relate anecdotes from Chapman’s colorful life (narrated by Chapman, from old audiotapes), but it jumps around in a way that makes the chronology and the significance of any given incident hard to understand, and it converts those stories into direly unfunny absurdist sketches, with pretensions of profundity. The result is like listening to an audiobook while watching the end-of-term projects at an animation trade school.
17. American Animal
It’s not unusual for a low-budget indie film to have a skimpy premise; but there’s skimpy, and then there’s the big nothing that is Matt D’Elia’s debut feature film, American Animal, in which D’Elia (who wrote, directed, produced, edited, and starred) plays an excruciatingly whimsical asshole who changes his name every few hours, demands that it be Christmas whenever he says, and makes up his own words to use whenever people are trying to talk with him seriously. As D’Elia and his roommate Brendan Fletcher entertain their girlfriends, Mircea Monroe and Angela Sarafyan, over one druggy evening, D’Elia tries to bully his friend into abandoning his plan to get a job, so that Fletcher can continue to be D’Elia’s sidekick in a daily endeavor to ignore society’s “rules” and just do what feels good in the moment. Because who wouldn’t want to spend all day every day hanging out with a dope-smoking moron who wears nothing but pink underpants (save for the times he’s sporting a Beethoven wig and a eye-patch) and punctuates his speech with nonsense phrases like “I doobie-doobie-doobie do” and “Fuckin’ poopy-loopy?”
16. A Thousand Words
The Eddie Murphy vehicle A Thousand Words spent four years in a studio oubliette, then hesitantly poked its head out just long enough to get slammed by critics and ignored by moviegoers. The idea is pretty standard—supernatural hoobajoo causes a shallow, self-absorbed, loudmouthed jerk to rethink his life and learn to value human connection. (See also: Groundhog Day, Click, Liar Liar, every loud, sloppy remake of A Christmas Carol, etc.) But the execution is particularly clumsy, as Murphy lies profusely to a New Age guru and is subsequently cursed with a mystical attachment to a tree, which loses a leaf for every word Murphy says. Supposedly, if the tree dies, he’ll die. But this comeuppance largely plays out through antic, oversized mugging, as Murphy attempts to communicate wordlessly with people who seem willfully determined to misunderstand him in the stupidest ways possible. Finally, he learns to use his few remaining words in a sappy, cloying way that satisfies his magic tree, though he’d be better off using them to apologize to cast members like Allison Janney, Clark Duke, and Jack McBrayer, all of whom deserve better scripts than this.
Or, The Handjob That Saved World War II. In order to call Hyde Park On Hudson one of the year’s worst movies, one must first stipulate that it is, in fact, a movie, which remains very much in doubt. That the story of a venerated U.S. president getting wanked off by his distant cousin is awful is not a surprise, but the slapdash manner in which it’s assembled is genuinely shocking, Strung together with gobs of voiceover and drenched in Jeremy Sams’ saccharine score, whose denatured Aaron Copland borrowings seem to have been dropped in at random from a great height, the film airs a public figure’s dirty laundry and then has the temerity to end with the suggestion that times were better when every private secret wasn’t thrust out into the open. (Presumably, the good-taste exemption lasts only until the person is dead, at which point the floodgates may be opened in good conscience.) The actors do yeoman’s work, but they don’t stand a chance against Hyde Park’s prevailing idiocy.
14. That’s My Boy
That’s My Boy at least deserves credit for being terrible in a manner markedly different from family-friendly Sandler slop like Grown Ups and Jack & Jill. Instead of pandering to the kiddies, Sandler unleashes his rancid id, playing a party animal who becomes a tabloid celebrity after knocking up his hot-to-trot teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) at 13, an act of statutory rape the film depicts as unambiguously awesome and not at all scarring or problematic in the least. The child grows up to be uptight numbers wiz Andy Samberg, and when Sandler’s debauched hustler needs to scrounge up money for back taxes to avoid going to jail, he re-enters his estranged son’s life and proceeds to turn it upside down with his boorish yet universally beloved man-child antics and shenanigans. That’s My Boy is unabashed and unapologetic in its vulgarity as it attempts to glean cheap laughs from fat people fucking, old people fucking, incest, and pedophilia, but the film’s flagrant bad taste and ugly sexism (a crowd-pleasing moment involves Sandler smashing Samberg’s evil, incestuous fiancée in the head with a beer bottle) are nowhere near as offensive as the almost complete dearth of laughs. When a surprisingly charming, self-deprecating turn from Vanilla Ice is the sole semi-redeeming facet in a film script-doctored by the talented likes of David Wain, Ken Marino, Robert Smigel, Tim Herlihy, and Sandler himself, something has gone horribly, horribly awry.
13. This Means War
In This Means War, Reese Witherspoon plays a successful professional whose career makes it difficult for her to meet people. She meets a nice guy (Tom Hardy) on an online dating site, and the two hit it off. She then meets another nice guy (Chris Pine) on an offline reality site, and they hit it off. It turns out the guys are best friends and CIA operatives who have now been turned into bitter romantic rivals. Sounds like a promising-enough love triangle, right? But This Means War has an Orwellian twist: Abusing even the relaxed privacy standards allowed by the Patriot Act, Hardy and Pine try to get the jump on each other by using high-tech surveillance equipment to spy on Witherspoon and sabotage her dates if necessary. Isn’t that adorable? She’s certain to be a good sport about it, right? Hardy and Pine are charming young actors, but Cary Grant and Clark Gable couldn’t have talked their way into making this scenario less creepy and invasive.
12. Alex Cross
It’s hard to say who’s less credible in this plodding reboot of James Patterson’s series of detective novels: Tyler Perry as a brilliant forensic psychologist capable of making uncanny leaps of deductive insight, or Matthew Fox as a diabolical serial killer who hangs around his crime scenes making sketches in which he embeds clues to his identity. Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider are hardly classics, but at least Morgan Freeman brought some gravitas and wily intelligence to the role; Perry, as usual, seems adrift without a dress, and the story’s abrupt shift into badass-revenge mode halfway through just makes him look silly, like a human version of Ghostbusters’ rampaging Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. And yet still not quite as silly as Fox, whose entire characterization resides in a crazy-eyes glare and a frightening absence of body fat.
Audiences in 2012 had a couple of choices when it came to sleek, expensive action-film franchise installments centering on catsuit-clad women killing everything in sight. Among the two most prominent options, Resident Evil: Retribution edged out the competition with more villain variety, better stunts, and more storyline for the true believers. Underworld: Awakening, meanwhile, punted with a McGuffin storyline that ditches much of the Underworld series’ complicated vampires-vs.-werewolves backstory and just has the protagonist (Kate Beckinsale) charging through a series of empty-headed battles, all leading to a setup for a future movie that just promises to be more of the same. It doesn’t feel like a movie so much as a shiny treadmill with guns.
10. Act Of Valor
Nobody ever said Navy SEALs were born actors, and this low-budget film shows why. Starring real-life SEALs—American heroes, we must note, lest we look bad or get our asses kicked—Act Of Valor is impressive only in scenes that capture some of the highly skilled covert-ops techniques used by the elite forces. But you know what captures that even better? Zero Dark Thirty, and with none of the basic-cable espionage plotting, shameless manipulation, and occasionally low-res cinematography.
Christian Slater! Donald Sutherland! Elika Portnoy? What lifts this incomprehensible Bulgaria-set thriller out of the growing mire of B-movies with faded stars getting a nominal pre-DVD release and makes it truly awful is the way it’s tailored to serve as a platform for Portnoy, an actress with a handful of films to her name, most also crediting her as a writer. She takes responsibility for the story of Assassin’s Bullet, a haze of clichés involving a mysterious, vigilante-killing jihadist and the FBI agent (Slater) called out of retirement to track him (or… her?) down. The narrative is only there to offer Portnoy a chance at indulging various actorly fantasies, as she plays a troubled woman in therapy dealing with past trauma, a hyper-competent killer, and a seductive belly dancer. (That it’s unclear as to whether the reveal that these women are all the same person is meant to be a surprise is indicative of how garbled this film is.) Portnoy has neither the acting talent nor the screen presence to hold this feature together or earn the amount of screen time she’s given, nor the exceptional looks to justify the reactions the other characters have to her. She just appears to be a woman striving to make herself a star in spite of the fact that the rest of the world refuses to cooperate in this goal. The best part of this film is imagining what Slater and Sutherland must have talked about while hanging around cafes in Sofia between takes and waiting to collect their checks.
The two movies at the top of this list are what The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin, in his My World Of Flops columns, calls “fiascoes,” movies that try for something ambitious and personal, and fall short in often compelling ways. Worse are mere “failures,” movies that try for little and achieve less. The Gerard Butler rom-com Playing For Keeps may not be a calamity of epic proportions, but it’s something far more enervating and soul-corroding: an intentional mediocrity that can’t even reach the low bar it sets for itself. Continuing to fail upwards, Butler gives his usual smarmy performance as a former soccer star who coaches a boys’ team and proves irresistible to their mothers. But worse than the bedroom farce that fails to materialize—and somehow worse than Butler’s earnest attempts to win over his freckle-faced son—is the spectacle of normally dignified actresses (Uma Thurman, Judy Greer, and Catherine Zeta-Jones) virtually crawling to his doorstep. What year is this again?
7. Piranha 3DD
Given the right circumstances, excessive ambition in filmmaking can be exciting. Lack of forward momentum or a lack of ending can be arty. Even incompetence can be charming. But of all the filmmaking sins, it’s hardest to excuse sheer laziness. 2010’s Piranha 3D was at least enthusiastic in its grisly grindhouse exploitation, with director Alexandre Aja going overboard (heh) to provide staggeringly over-the-top gore. The 2012 sequel, the first film to be released simultaneously to theaters and On Demand (but certainly not the last), is a shrug of a movie by comparison, aiming for a few groans and a few giggles, plus smug adolescent grins whenever tits or twats show up onscreen. The plot—a riff on Jaws in which greedy, sleazy water-park owner David Koechner saves money by illicitly pumping in well water and refuses to close down, even when the local wells fill up with killer piranha—is possibly meant to be read as tongue-in-cheek, but it’s just dead-eyed dumb, particularly when the water park gets infested and the bloodied victims somehow have trouble escaping simple swimming pools. And every part of the film—the writing, the acting, the blood-and-guts wallowing—is just as indifferent and audience-insulting as that central story conceit.
In recent years, Rob Reiner has devoted most of his attentions to becoming a major force in the California Democratic party, and based on this atrocity, that’s where they should stay. Reiner can make decent movies when he starts with a good script, but when it’s as weak as Belle Isle’s, he has nowhere to go but down. It’s a tossup as to whether greater offense is given by Morgan Freeman’s avuncular Magical Negro or Ash Christian’s turn as a burbling man with mental retardation who spends the day in a perpetual bunny hop, but the safe bet is to give the film the widest possible berth and let Reiner go back to hosting fundraisers.
Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and Comic-Con: Episode IV are slight but charming and amusing trifles. Spurlock’s Mansome, in sharp contrast, is slight but absolutely insufferable, a shabby excuse for a documentary that sadistically stretches to feature length a premise that would barely support a two-minute short: What is the deal with male grooming and dudes suddenly caring about their appearance and shit? The film chronicles what it inexplicably presumes to be the new phenomenon of men paying attention to their appearance and grooming themselves in manners previous generations would have found downright womanly. Executive producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman squander some of the goodwill they’ve accrued over the years in segments where they discuss grooming while being pampered at a spa in between egregiously pointless and self-indulgent bits that document an obnoxious facial-hair enthusiast who participates in beard competitions and (most tellingly) Spurlock shaving off his signature mustache. That is the film in a nutshell: Spurlock smirking at himself in the mirror, admiring his pretty, pretty mustache while pondering just how little substance a documentary can have and still technically qualify as a movie and not just a bunch of random, vaguely connected footage best left on the cutting-room floor.
4. Silent House
A remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film that claimed to be based on a true story, Silent House has a terrific lead actress—Elizabeth Olsen—and a compelling gimmick: It unfolds as if shot in a single take. It doesn’t make the best of either, however, stranding its lead’s intense work in the middle of takes whose length doesn’t make them all that impressive, to say nothing of scary. Its mediocrity takes a downward turn in a final act that hinges on an icky, exploitative twist. Do not enter. This property is condemned.
3. October Baby
Though it’s rare for them to break through into the mainstream conversation, the faith-based industry continues to roll out films catering to the values of an audience feeling underserved by Hollywood. But October Baby is something else entirely, a piece of pro-life propaganda about a teenage girl who learns the health problems that have always plagued her are a result of her being the adopted survivor of a botched abortion. She shakes off her protective parents (including a dad played by The Dukes Of Hazzard’s John Schneider) and goes to track down the woman who attempted to get rid of her. What makes the film so insidious and upsetting is the way in which it’s understood that the reluctant birth mother deserves what she gets. Everyone, including a sheriff and the nurse who used to work at the abortion clinic, hears the daughter’s story and helps her along the way, even passing along the woman’s contact information. No right to privacy, no understanding of the mother’s traumatic experience. She’s instead lucky enough to be confronted and forgiven by this child she tried to abort. It’s a cinematic encapsulation of a worldview in which a woman’s rights are widely understood to be secondary to those of her offspring, both in the womb and years later. October Baby received a limited release timed to coincide with a ballot initiative to add an amendment to the Mississippi Constitution declaring life as beginning at the moment of fertilization. Adding a wan teen romance doesn’t make it go down any easier.
In the annals of great wedding scenes—the liquor-soaked reception that chews up the first 50 minutes of The Deer Hunter, the behind-the-scenes sit-downs in The Godfather—Atlas Shrugged: Part II fails to add its own celebration, which breaks down when a character gives a wedding toast explaining the value of money. That’s just the most egregious example of the unintentionally hilarious disconnect between the way Ayn Rand’s robotic super-capitalists think and talk, and the way actual human beings relate to each other. The irony of Part II’s mere existence is rich enough: The free market is a religion for Rand acolytes, and it emphatically rejected Part I at the height of the Tea Party movement. Of the myriad problems that make Part II every bit as awful as Part I—the complete recasting of the major roles, the shoehorned references to Occupy revolutionaries, the profound arrogance of rich geniuses taking their toys and going home (i.e. “going Galt”)—the worst may be how little progress it makes in moving the series forward. The first part ends with a major industrialist going Galt. The second adds a bunch of other industrialists going Galt. Couldn’t a four-minute montage set to “Bawitdaba” have done the trick?
1. The Paperboy
Most stinkers are easily identifiable from a distance, but every so often a filmmaker somehow manages to persuade the world that an outhouse is an air freshener. Having inexplicably won major awards for the hideously garish emotional pile-driver that was Precious, Lee Daniels apparently felt empowered to take his bizarre amalgam of lurid and sanctimonious to the next level, and secured a Cannes competition berth for his adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel The Paperboy, starring Matthew McConaughey as a reporter investigating the case of a death-row inmate (John Cusack) at the behest of his pen-pal girlfriend (Nicole Kidman). Critics emerged from the première howling at the memory of Kidman heroically pissing all over Zac Efron (to combat a jellyfish sting), but that’s merely the most risible moment in a movie relentlessly devoted to degradation, even as it purports to be saying something trenchant about racial animus. Some tried to make a case for it as great camp—certainly it’s hard to process Cusack’s hilariously inept attempt at a psychotic good ol’ boy any other way—but there’s way too much finger-wagging for it to be any fun.