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2011 Year-end Wrap-up: The Year's Worst Films

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This is the fourth of several year-end wrap essays detailing the year in film.  This time, it's time to document the worst of the worst in cinema for the 2011 movie year.  Of course, while most critics make a point to try to seek out the allegedly best in cinema in any given year, not quite as much effort is made to track down every would-be stinker.  As such, I've tried to highlight truly terrible films that either 'damn well should have been good' or represent something greater than itself via its artistic failure.  Anyway, without further pretentious ado, here are the nine worst films in alphabetical order, followed by the absolute worst picture in 2011.

The Art of Getting By
This film so slavishly followed that indie formula I'm always whining about ('brooding young man solves his problems/comes of age with help of a selfless hottie') to such a degree that with just a bit of tweaking, it could have been a Z.A.Z.-style parody.  Emma Roberts again plays the endlessly helpful and forgiving prize to be won for the second time in under a year, after the comparably superior It's Kind of a Funny Story (that one at least had strong dramatic work from Zach Galifianakis and Viola Davis).  All of the cliches are firmly in place, the story has nothing of importance to say, and an extended cameo by Michael Angarano elicits guffaws in the same manner as Clive Owen showing up as 'not-James Bond' in The Pink Panter 2, albeit unintentional in this case.  In short, The Art of Getting By (and, natch, the equally revolting though lower-profile Waiting For Forever) is the kind of film that makes independent cinema look bad.

Cowboys and Aliens
And now we have a film that makes big-budget blockbuster film making look terrible too.  In a year when production budgets generally drifted downward to reflect slightly lowered ticket sales, Cowboys and Aliens spent $160 million to look about as impressive as an Asylum Entertainment picture.  This seemingly amusing idea, a hybrid of alien-invasion drama and a classical western, instead becomes a textbook case of how everything can go wrong with a would-be franchise starter.  Daniel Craig has not a drop of charisma or sympathy, proving yet again that the very elements that make him an interesting 007 (his cold, brutish, steely persona) kill his worth as a traditional heroic leading man. Olivia Wilde has nothing interesting to do for 80% of the film other than to look pretty and be protected from harm, yet her inclusion in the story saps precious running time and leaves lead Craig without a real purpose in the finale of the picture.  And the script is so harebrained that it makes Harrison Ford into a paternalistic hero while forgetting that he was introduced as a murderous villain (he kills a man in his first scene).  Oh, and Ford sleepwalks through the picture in a manner that would make Marlon Brando envious.  The aliens provide no technical interest, while the film doesn't even try to play its 'cowboys team up with Native Americans to vanquish common foe' angle for any social relevance or historical irony.  Without anything resembling substance, no characters worth caring about after (spoiler) Clancy Brown dies in the second act, and no action sequences worth giving a damn about, Cowboys and Aliens is an epic failure on nearly every artistic and commercial level.

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (review)
If this were a bigger picture or a more socially important film, it would probably be 'the worst film of the year'.  It is a visually hideous and narratively drab would-be horror/film noir hybrid that succeeds as neither.  Despite the best efforts of lead Brandon Routh and Taye Diggs (plus Peter Stormare acting as badly as he can), the film remains one of the most lifeless and out-and-out boring films I have ever seen in a theater.  It's filled with unending exposition, some terrible special effects (you'll be amazed how not impressive and scary the 'final threat' is), and poorly framed action.  It has a visual scope that, with its extreme close-ups and important action occurring just off-frame appears fit for an Android phone.  This one raised the bar in two ways - A) It's the closest I've ever come to willingly walking out of a movie before it ended and B) It's the only movie that was so dull that I eventually moved to the highest row in a nearly empty theater so I could check my email while I waited for it to conclude.  I'm not proud of that, how's that for a pull-quote?

Fright Night
It could be argued that I am judging this dull, visually ugly, and relatively dumb horror film on a harsher scale because it is a prime example of what's wrong with arbitrary remakes.  It has neither the courage to update the 1985 original film nor go off on its own tangent.  A lot of good actors (Colin Ferrell, Toni Collette, Anton Yelchin, David Tennant, Imogen Poots, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) go down with the ship in this painfully uninspired botch that neither amuses or terrifies.  The very novelty of the first film is irrelevant in the age of Google and/or Amazon, making this update absolutely needless.  That it was remade purely because someone somewhere thought there was marquee value in a film that few outside horror fans from the 1980s remember is paramount cynicism.  That it was converted into bar-none the most hideous and genuinely unwatchable 3D you've ever seen only highlights how creatively bankrupt the whole process was.
Limitless

Irony of ironies, Limitless represents one of the most positive trends of the year while also being one of its worst films.  The picture was an old-fashioned star-driven and concept-driven thriller that cost just $27 million to produce and ended up grossing $168 million worldwide.  It was just one of many low-cost, high-return adult-driven genre pictures that signaled a certain realization amongst the studios that not every film had to cost $85 million and that adult-driven genre films could be profitable if they cost under $50 million to make.  Unfortunately, Limitless is pretty terrible. For a film about a guy who becomes the world's smartest man, Limitless is uncommonly stupid.  The film expects us to sympathize with a man (Bradley Cooper, cast somewhat to stereotype) who uses the gift of ultimate knowledge not to solve the world's problems or even further his own artistic ambitions, but merely to make tons of money in the investment game.  Moreover, the film has Eddie making a number of stupid decisions (borrowing money from the Russian mob, not trying to get more 'smart pills' until he's almost out, etc) which result in the violent deaths of several completely innocent bystanders.  Without going into details, the film ends with him getting away with everything all the while not resolving the tiny issue of whether or not Eddie murdered an innocent woman while in a drug-induced haze.  Limitless is both uncommonly stupid and uncomfortably immoral.

Passion Play (review)
This was a blink-and-you miss it art-house stinker that I only happened to see because the press screening was right next-door to where I was seeing the All-Media of Thor later in the evening.  Mickey Rourke gives another 'retract that Oscar nod' performance as a selfish, pathetic cartoon of a 1940s hard-boiled cliche.  Yet the film asks us to sympathize with his machinations and absolutely buy the romance between him and Megan Fox even as he plots to betray her.  May/December romances are one thing, but Mickey Rourke is not only 34 years older than Fox but looks like a villain from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.  Fox does what she can with a badly written part, and one can hardly blame her for poor acting in a film so botched that Bill Murray's cameo barely counts as entertainment.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (review)
First of all, when you spend an entire marketing campaign basically telling paying customers that they were wrong to lay down their money to watch the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films (while also implicitly insulting those who liked them), and then you go and make a film that makes the bloated but ambitious and enthralling At World's End look like Return of the King, you don't deserve any mercy.  This was an amazingly cynical (and tragically successful) money grab, betting that fans of the prior Pirates of the Caribbean films didn't care about story, character, and artistic merit, but rather merely showed up to watch Johnny Depp clown around as Jack Sparrow.  The film looked ugly and cheap even in 2D, so I can't imagine how hideous the 3D versions looked.  Spending $250 million on a film that resembled a $50 million TV pilot for The Continuing Adventures of Jack Sparrow, the film contained not one interesting new character, not one impressive action sequence, not one remotely interesting narrative thread, and not one iota of social relevance or topicality.  Geoffrey Rush looked miserable and you can see the flop sweat on Johnny Depp's face.  The original Gore Verbinski trilogy was artful, imaginative, and inspired even at its most bloated.  This Rob Marshall entry should finally make audiences realize that the vastly overrated Chicago was a fluke.  This is an awful, shamefully hideous motion picture.   

Red State (review)
This was the tragic case of Kevin Smith playing well-outside his sandbox and falling on his face.  This sloppy, visually hazy, often incoherent would-be horror film fails in nearly every plausible fashion.  It wastes countless good actors (among them, John Goodman and Melissa Leo) and seems to lack even basic filmmaking competence.  Whatever topical relevance it may have had comes ten years too late.  Whatever mastery of genre Kevin Smith attempted to display comes off as amateurish, resembling the very worst in direct-to-DVD horror.   With complete artistic freedom and a subject close to his heart, Smith botches the entire project, artistically and ideologically, substituting substance for rambling 'tell, don't show' monologues and a climax that feels like Smith ran out of money before the final pages could be shot.  I am neither Smith's biggest fan nor his biggest defender, but this is easily his worst film to date.  May it remain so...

Scream 4 (review)
Arguably The Roommate was the worst horror thriller of the year, one of the first studio features that offers almost nothing resembling a 'movie' (character, plot, moments of excitement or horror, etc).  But Scream 4 hurt far more.  Just so no one thinks I'm picking on Emma Roberts, she has arguably the one genuinely interesting scene in this otherwise complete tragedy.  Proof that Wes Craven may in fact be finished as a horror director of relevance, this fourth entry is sloppy, disjointed, and painfully aware of its own needlessness.  Not content to merely be lousy, it rubs the audience's faces in their decision to view it.  It is an attack on remakes and would-be torture porn that fails to achieve the token artistic goals of even most of the films making up those respective sub-genres.  It has all the authenticity of a 70 year old director and 46 year old writer trying to replicate 'how kids today interact with each other'.  It pertains to be a Scream film for the new age of horror while merely replicating the first film's hack-and-slash violence.  It tarnishes the franchise, makes one (incorrectly) wonder if they were too hard on Scream 3, and exists purely to arrogantly comment on how pointless and relentlessly mediocre it really is.

And now, the very worst film of 2011.
Crazy, Stupid Love (review)
Before I get into this, I should point out, in the name of mercy, that I quite enjoyed Dan Fogelman and John Requa's I Love You, Phillip Morris.

When I'm discussing bad or mediocre films that arguably aren't worth getting worked up about, I often say that the film is 'harmless', 'not hateful', or 'not evil'. Crazy, Stupid Love is arguably evil in its wanton misogyny and low view of women. And it is arguably quite harmful in that its 'insights' about relationships and romance have been given approval by so many adult critics and pundits purely because the lead characters aren't teenagers.  Say what you will about the Twilight series or the almost comical sexism of the Transformers pictures, but they are endlessly debated, analyzed, and pontificated about.  They are not accepted at face value or treated as gospel. Crazy, Stupid Love got away with, nay received critical huzzahs for, presenting adult women as helpless to resist the charms of any dime-store pick-up artist, unable to engage in a one-night stand without having a nervous breakdown in a public and professional setting, still under the moral control of their fathers, but ultimately blameless for the real moral mistakes they might make.  It presented 'never taking no for an answer' not as a useful tool in the stalker handbook, but as a genuine path to finding 'true love'.  It talked of 'soul mates' like it was a science, god help any girl who might disagree with random guy's declaration of love.  It presented situations lacking in anything resembling realism and passed them off as 'genuine'.  It presented moronic and adolescent romantic advice as 'wisdom'.  Never-mind that it's not funny, not moving, and sophomoric in its construction, the stamp of approval that this film received by the critical community makes Crazy, Stupid Love arguably the most dangerous and harmful film of 2011.

And that's it for now. As always, share your thoughts below. Tomorrow will of course be the 'best/favorite' films of 2011.

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