#4 through #10 (in alphabetical order):
- Charlie Kaufman's and Duke Johnson's depressing, misanthropic "Anomalisa" deploys machine gun-fire profanities and meaningless quirkiness to mask the void in its soul. Its ugly stop-motion animation features eerily inhuman looking puppets and, bizarrely, a single voice actor in every role (other than Jennifer Jason Leigh's). The wafer-thin storyline involves the doomed affair between a customer-service guru (a conceit that screams "Script!") and a mousy groupie at a Cincinnati hotel. Kaufman - whose last bouquet of dead roses for moviegoers, "Synecdoche, New York," came over seven years ago - loves the sound of his voice more than anything else the human species has to offer.
- Michael Winterbottom, whose "The Trip to Italy" I called the funniest film of 2014 and slotted at #4 on last year's top-ten list, lost his way entirely with the head-scratching "The Face of an Angel," starring Daniel Brühl as a journalist in Siena for a fictionalized version of Amanda Knox's appeal of her murder conviction. Rather than delve into the crime, Winterbottom feeds Brühl vapid pontifications about the impossibility of knowing the truth and how the trial is all show (now aren't those fresh ideas?). As his cynical reporter snorted ever more cocaine and hallucinated Knox eating a human heart, we took the opportunity to walk out.
- Anne Fletcher's "Hot Pursuit" proves women directors can produce cinematic garbage every bit as fetid as that of their male counterparts. Reese Witherspoon plays a buttoned-up, by-the-book cop (again, how fresh) named Officer Cooper (no first name, ho ho), charged with transporting a drug kingpin's wild-card widow (Sofia Vergara) across Texas to testify against the head of a major cartel. It's as generic and stale a formula as it sounds, approximately 25 years out of time, with Vergara providing the only few laughs. As for Witherspoon, it's inconceivable that this gifted actress chose to follow up her Oscar-nominated turn in "Wild" with a role so overstuffed with unfunny dialogue, delivered so painfully shrilly, she should win the year's Worst Actress Razzie in a walk.
- The less said, the better about the sophomoric sequel "Hot Tub Time Machine 2," which in 90 minutes destroys all the goodwill of the infinitely funnier original. Returning director Steve Pink - who also made 2014's terrific "About Last Night" - never finds a consistent comic tone, leaving us to hurtle through time and space in a vomit-inducing vortex of anatomical and scatological jokes and pantomimed anal intercourse.
- The torturous, brain-dead spy spoof "Kingsman: The Secret Service" wastes the talents of Michael Caine, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Mark Strong in a frenetic plot that would take ten chalkboards to diagram and distends its runtime to a grotesque 130 minutes. It plagiarizes liberally from the Bond franchise but boasts precisely none of its suavity, sophistication or wit. As a nefarious telecom jillionaire bent on world destruction, Jackson's shtick is to lisp his lines, which is not funny the first time and becomes less so over the succeeding twenty.
- Like a holiday dinner left out too long, the rancid "Love the Coopers" curdles and coagulates. Hack director Jessie Nelson takes a cast for whom we have nearly unlimited goodwill (John Goodman, Diane Keaton, Marisa Tomei) and finds the limit. They're left floundering by a Steven Rogers script that's by turns shrill and cloying, slapstick and sitcom, with a ghastly over-narration that's all the more dispiriting for having been read by the great Steve Martin. No movie with three doggie reaction shots has ever been good. "Love the Coopers" has 68.
- The mortifying "Mortdecai" may sound the death knell for Johnny Depp's career as a movie star. As a third tier art-world crook, he sports a repellent mustache and talks like Peter Sellers going through puberty. Each of half a dozen running themes (including the unlikely Paul Bettany as Depp's studhorse manservant) produced only stony silence from my audience. As with Depp's historic bomb "The Lone Ranger," I watched this movie with my mouth agape with incredulity. It is aggressively, excruciatingly unfunny.
The bronze medal goes to Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland." It's not often you wonder what players at this level were thinking, but this script (credited to a Hydra of writers) is so all over the map - geographically, temporally and tonally - it practically screams "un-filmable." Throw in endless arguments between George Clooney and two teenage girls - one (Raffey Cassidy) creepy, the other (bland Brittany Robertson) clearly just glad to be here - and you have two hours of true torture.
Clooney plays Frank Walker, a disgruntled inventor whom we first meet as a precocious whiz kid who brings his "jet pack" to the '64 World's Fair despite its inability to, you know, fly. He's rebuffed by the humorless David Nix (Hugh Laurie), and now lives in technologically fortified solitude. Enter Casey, who's "smart" the way a lot of girls in the movies are smart these days - she watches men tinker futilely with mechanical gizmos before fixing them with the flip of a switch. Forced to spend the night in jail after trespassing on a NASA facility (or am I conflating this part with "Interstellar"?), she finds among her belongings a mysterious pin emblazoned with the letter "T."
Whenever she touches it, she's instantly transported to Tomorrowland - not the obsoletely futuristic section of Disneyland (nobody in the movie's ever heard of that), but the place itself, imagined surprisingly sketchily, with little shape or substance. The pin was bestowed on Casey by Agatha, the creepy girl who's actually a robot, who needs Casey to help save Tomorrowland, except that the world may already have ended (as we see, near the end, in brief video clips reminiscent of John Woo's sci-fi bomb "Paycheck"), or maybe it didn't, or maybe (as Laurie suggests in a speech out of left field) all we have to do is recycle, or pay attention to global warming, or God knows what.
"Tomorrowland" is the kind of mess that leaves you shaking your head and talking back to the screen. It goes out of its way to put you off, with countless redundant scenes of the disputatious trio hurtling through the universe, barely avoiding gaps in the time-space continuum before landing on their asses. It cost a reported $280 million to make and market, but the money doesn't show; it looks to have been shot half on green screens at studio lots and half at remote locations chosen for their film subsidies. A typical mistake involves a daytime scene between Frank and Casey, in which Frank has made a rare exit from his house and the camera, which should be positioned so that Frank blots out the sunlight and we see his face, instead captures only the glare around him, causing us to squint. There's never an excuse to hide Clooney's face, though I can understand why he may want to if he ever actually sits through "Tomorrowland."
For the silver medal, an instant camp classic: the unintentionally hilarious "No Escape," with a miscast Owen Wilson as a water company exec who, eager to bring fresh water to people in need, travels with his wife (Lake Bell, oozing embarrassment) and young daughters to an unnamed East Asian country (filming took place in Thailand; the police outfits use upside-down Cambodian characters) where, unbeknownst to him, locals who view the company as exploiters have begun a bloody coup, taking a hatchet to the head of anyone who looks foreign. The movie becomes a two-hour chase in which absurdities pile upon inanities.
The defining and most cackle-worthy sequence - one I'll never forget - begins with the insurrectionists strafing hotel guests from a helicopter. Wilson mansplains to Bell that they must jump from their rooftop to that of another building 50 yards away. It defies the physical laws of this planet, of course, but Bell, after one false start, does it, and rather than capture the terror of the moment John Erick Dowdle's camera cuts to her landing safely on the second building. Then the real fun begins, as Wilson takes his younger daughter and shotputs her across the divide. She too lands safely, right on top of mommy, whose legs would now at the very least be broken and severed from her body, but who's actually fine. Then comes the second daughter, who's so frightened Wilson ties her up like a rolled-up carpet and heaves her to safety before he, too, completes the jump. As each lands, someone invariably asks, "Are you OK?", and I pretty much didn't stop laughing for a good ten minutes.
Pierce Brosnan disappears for an hour at a time only to reappear magically from behind a door or in an alleyway just when death appears imminent. His own death scene is another one for the books. "No Escape" is one of the worst studio entertainments ever committed to film.
The gold medal goes - by a country mile - to Jean Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language," which qualifies for my 2015 list by virtue of having opened in Los Angeles with a weeklong run at the Aero in Santa Monica in January. Godard has been the unclothed emperor of the film world - perhaps its most overrated director - for a long time. Here, shooting in 3D that looks like a burned-out screensaver from a computer left unattended for about a week, he reveals himself as a bilious misanthrope and a sad self-parody, excreting pseudo-intellectual references and dialogue so intentionally incomprehensible it makes Scientology seem transparent. "Pardon me, sir," a woman's voice asks, apropos of nothing. "Is it possible to produce a concept about Africa?"
What's impossible is adequately to describe the degradations and humiliations comprising the joke 70-minute runtime of "Goodbye to Language." There are endless end-of-the-world arguments between a man and woman that come off like late-night bull sessions between philosophy grad students. During most of these, the man is taking a dump, and Godard fills the soundtrack with the noises of bowel movements and flatulence. There are also countless scenes of the filmmaker's dog wandering around aimlessly and at one point wallowing in its own feces. His nauseating and headache-inducing compost heap of scatology and eschatology, in a film pockmarked with visual and aural discontinuities, can only be taken as an expression of hatred and scorn for the drain-circling residue of his onetime following.
Godard uses title cards such as "Ah Dieux" instead of "Adieu," and never has it been truer that a pun is the lowest form of wit. For all the pretension on parade here, the actual level of discourse is deeply unimpressive. The two highlights - when my audience, who appeared to be on a field trip from film school, deigned to chuckle - involve the onscreen image seemingly coming apart and circling back on itself, like a cinematic double exposure. What an attenuated and technique-y pleasure, wholly disconnected from the power of film to engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally. With the elderly enfant terrible Godard, it's all about "look at me."
Lou Lumenick of the New York Post awarded "Goodbye to Language" zero stars, calling it "twice as effective and three times as fast-acting as Ambien." I will say that it is much, much worse than the worst film of 2014, "A Million Ways to Die in the West." If you recommended it to 100 friends, you'd lose 99. For me, it's not goodbye to language but goodbye to Godard - forever.