Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Worst Films of 2017

This year, I made a conscious effort to avoid, to a large extent, films I knew I wouldn't like. I saw about 50 fewer films than in 2016 (and have some hope of going below 200 this year). Perhaps as a result, I awarded one star to only sixteen films, making compiling a worst ten list unusually easy.


Brian Knappenberger's Netflix documentary "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" has the temerity to blame Silicon Valley entrepreneur and early Trump supporter Peter Thiel - who bankrolled Hulk Hogan's successful lawsuit against the website Gawker - as well as the President for allegedly endangering dissent. Knappenberger must be living under a rock, because anti-administration comment (it's hard to call it dissent when it's all you hear in the mainstream media) has never been expressed more freely or less bravely than today. The "free press" does face existential problems, but they are of its own making: laziness, inaccuracy, corruption, dishonesty and pervasive bias as to which Americans had caught on long before Donald Trump called them out.


Never trust a movie by a guy named Nacho. Case in point: Nacho Vigalondo's "Colossal," with Anne Hathaway as an alcoholic New York screw-up who discovers to her horror that her movements control those of a monster marching through the streets of Seoul. The movie fancies itself a genre-bender, but it's really just another Comedy Without Laughs with a silly sci-fi overlay. Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens vie for the title of most unpleasant movie character of the year, the former as another robot-controller distastefully enamored of his homicidal capabilities, the latter as Hathaway's bullying Big Apple boyfriend.


After 2016's "High-Rise" and this year's "Free Fire," I'm officially pulling the plug on Ben Wheatley. His is a totally unfunny, self-obsessed single-site action comedy about a gun sale gone wrong, with a charisma-free Armie Hammer and probably my least favorite working actor, the fingernails-on-blackboard Sharlto Copley. That Brie Larson would choose this film to follow up her Oscar win for "Room" defies credulity.


From John Michael McDonagh, the sick mind responsible for 2014's "Calvary" (whose brother Martin, the creator of "In Bruges" and "Three Billboards," obviously got all the talent in the family), came "War on Everyone," a desperately overwritten and profoundly unfunny crooked-cop comedy, with talented Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Pena completely miscast as partners on the Albuquerque P.D.


William Oldroyd's "Lady Macbeth" wastes a promising debut by Florence Pugh in an exercise in misanthropic miserabilism, as we watch a young woman imprisoned by her husband and his father in a loveless marriage in rural England find passion with a black servant only for it to be snatched away. Then everybody starts dying - including, despicably, several animals - as Oldroyd mistakes the shock value of "what's the worst that could happen?" happening again and again for some sort of artistic integrity. It's not; it's just cut-rate sensationalism.


Dave Eggers' book "The Circle" might have worked on the printed page; on the big screen, its ideas about the online world infiltrating and taking over our lives and minds come crashing down around real-world places, situations and dialogue that couldn't come off phonier if they'd tried. Emma Watson is all wrong for the lead, while Tom Hanks continues to cement his status as a sure-fire indicator of a huge flop. Every member of Hanks' vast workforce laughs at every laugh line and aside in every speech. I rolled my eyes, then grumbled aloud, then walked out.


Dan Gilroy's "Roman J. Israel, Esq." is the most bizarre movie I've seen all year, and perhaps the most unappealing. The press kit calls it a "dramatic thriller," but almost nothing happens - until a climactic shooting conceived and filmed in a tone incongruous with the rest of the picture. I was shocked to learn Gilroy, the writer-director of 2014's brilliant "Nightcrawler," is responsible for this inert, squirm-in-your-seat slow two-hour death march. Denzel Washington, in his worst performance of recent years, plays the title attorney, the research-and-writing brains behind a Johnnie Cochran-type criminal defense attorney. When the big man croaks, sharpie Colin Farrell swoops in to buy the neighborhood firm out and lure Roman to his gleaming office in the DTLA sky. There follow some of the least convincing legal scenes in cinematic memory, and an ethics-violating act by Roman wholly out of keeping with his character. But then again, there's little to this character besides an endlessly disputatious personality and a bunch of half-mumbled jive about oppression and racial justice. The talented Carmen Ejogo is also wasted as a community organizer (ugh) whose scenes with Roman (a laughable meeting of activists, a queasy suggestion of romantic interest) are even less believable than the law stuff.


Particular contempt must be reserved for Kathryn Bigelow's race-baiting "Detroit," a two-and-a-half-hour movie with exactly ten seconds of nuance, which begs to be patted on the head for topicality by showing some white policemen behaving very badly - and all the black people behaving like saints (an end title card notes that the depictions are based on the recollections of only selected participants) during a 1967 riot. Today's urban police forces are either majority-minority or close to it, with a large percentage of women; they bear no relation to the snarling Klansmen Bigelow serves up here, and perpetuating that false equivalency (and the movie would have no reason to exist were it not doing so) is deeply misguided and grievously damaging to the communities she's merely attempting nonchalantly to exploit.


Colin Trevorrow's howler "The Book of Henry," about a child genius (yawn) who looks after his perpetually distracted waitress mother (Naomi Watts) and younger brother (Jacob Tremblay), takes place in an alternate universe of phoniness and fraudulence. When Henry bites the big one from a brain tumor, he leaves Mom detailed instructions on how to kill their police-chief neighbor, who (or so it appears from the oblique views offered to us) abuses his stepdaughter. Mom's reaction? Sounds great to her! She goes through with it, all the while listening to the cassette tape Henry made her, in which he guides her second by second, anticipating every detour she takes. The level of contrivance and coincidence in this movie is, to borrow a line from "The Golden Girls," like being struck by lightning in a house you won from Ed McMahon.


Talk about false advertising: the trailers for Oren Moverman's "The Dinner" sell it as a Richard Gere thriller about a Congressman whose son gets into criminal trouble (with his brother's son) that imperils his latest campaign. But Gere's almost a bit player; virtually the entire movie belongs to Steve Coogan as the most annoying, psychotic father whose kid hasn't been forcibly removed by Child Protective Services. Talented Rebecca Hall and Laura Linney are lamentable afterthoughts as the respective wives in a bizarre, incoherent mess of a movie that, eight months later, it still hurts to think about.

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