The Best Things About 2019's Bad Movies
At the end of each year, much ink is spilled over the best that film had to offer during the past twelve months. Top 10 lists, personal awards ballots, overlooked performances, you name it. Harder to find (though not impossible) are the pieces about the worst in film, and for good reason — with so much to celebrate, why spend time on a pursuit that feels unnecessary at best and cynically mean-spirited at worst? But by writing off the “bad” movies, we too easily undermine a key element that makes cinema a unique art form: the fact that the output is overwhelming the product of extensive collaboration, whether by a crew of three people or 3,000. Even in the worst films, there’s usually some bright spot, some individual contribution that shines through if you look hard enough. That’s what this list is for: the movies represented below rank among my least favorite of the year for a variety of reasons, but there was something about each one of them that I admired. Would I honestly recommend any of these movies? For the most part, no. But even when a work is somehow less than the sum of its parts, those parts are still worth saluting — so, with that, hats off to the best of the worst!
Cinematography, The Climb Michael Angelo Covino’s bromance feels like it’s trying just a little too hard in almost every regard, a trait not uncommon in a debut feature. This applies to Zach Kuperstein’s camerawork as well, but in this instance the swing for the fences works. The kineticism and long takes initially feel out of place given the visual language we’ve become accustomed to in this sort of low-budget indie comedy, but they eventually serve to broaden the scope of the film, making the intimate feel epic in a way the screenplay can’t quite manage. Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge, Clemency Chinonye Chukwu’s death row drama is vexingly muddled, but it features two knockout performances by Woodard as the conflicted prison warden and Hodge as the sympathetic prisoner facing a terrible fate. Woodard conveys multitudes with just the corners of her mouth, and Hodge overwhelms with his intensity — when he fully breaks, the audience breaks right along with him. Even in the moments where the film descends into undercooked melodrama, these two are never less than fully and compassionately believable. Visual Effects, The Lion King This year’s remake of the Disney animated classic seemed unnecessary from the moment it was first announced and in execution did almost nothing to prove that assumption wrong. The one true selling point was its photorealistic animation, and while in the end that animation ends up as little more than a tech demo unable to imbue emotion into the story, the effects are truly astonishing. Every blade of grass and strand of fur has been painstakingly realized, impressively enough that the uncanny valley is nearly bypassed altogether. Applied to a more original or interesting project, the filmmaking possibilities for this level of effects work are incredibly exciting. Will Smith, Gemini Man Speaking of technology, Ang Lee’s action-thriller was perhaps undone less by his insistence on experimenting with high frame rate photography than by the creaky screenplay, but if anyone escaped Gemini Man unscathed it’s Will Smith. Playing two versions of himself, Smith injects an impressive level of melancholy into his aging assassin while reharnessing much of his youthful energy and emotion to inhabit the role of a cloned supersoldier (with a digital assist from the effects team). Rarely has a dual role been so involved, with the film’s emotional weight fully resting on all four of Smith’s shoulders, but he carries it all with an effortlessness that reminds us just how much of a star he truly is. The Bus Scene, The Perfection The centerpiece of Richard Shepard’s thriller is an extraordinary sequence of pure body horror, a watch-through-your-fingers scene that delightfully disgusts and leaves the audience anxiously anticipating where this twisted story might be going. Unfortunately the answer is nowhere, as after the highs of the first half The Perfection sinks under its own weight, but those few moments in the middle are as exhilarating and horrifying as any in recent memory.
The Experience of Watching Serenity, Serenity The one movie on this list I can whole-heartedly recommend, Serenity is one of the dumbest films I have ever seen but also one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year. Come for Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway fully committing to outlandish and nonsensical characters, stay for the plot decisions so absurd they have to be seen to be believed. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but damned if I didn’t enjoy watching it. Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day 2U If Happy Death Day 2U failed to capture the magic of its delightful predecessor, the blame cannot be laid at the feet of its star. Rothe is one of the most charismatic new faces of the last few years and a failure to make her a gigantic star would be a searing indictment of the whole damn system. She turns the “final girl” archetype on its head, oscillating between caustic wit and real pathos with an ease that would make the most seasoned actor jealous. Fingers crossed that — as fun as the original is — this franchise ends up being remembered primarily for introducing us to the next big thing. The Opening Car Chase, 6 Underground As I wrote about when it came out, 6 Underground is close to a classic “so bad it’s good” movie, peaking with its opening setpiece, a twenty-plus-minute car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy that exemplifies the movie’s unrelenting bombast and questionable sense of humor. Michael Bay pulls out all the stops here, sending his characters hurtling through the city with reckless abandon, collateral damage be damned. Despite Bay’s deserved reputation as a master of flashy trash, you have to give him credit for orchestrating one of the more thrilling — and mostly practical! — action sequences of the year. Thomas Haden Church, Hellboy In Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, Lobster Johnson is a 1930s vigilante who operates out of a secret sewer base, fights Nazis, and burns the image of a lobster claw into the foreheads of the mobsters he kills. In Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot, Lobster Johnson is played by Thomas Haden Church and for one glorious minute we get a glimpse of the Nazi-killing extravaganza that might have been. Alas, there are 120 additional minutes in Hellboy, few of which are good and none of which feature Church, but the surrounding film can’t tarnish that singularly perfect piece of casting. All we can do is dream that Guillermo Del Toro will return to the franchise to make the Lobster Johnson spin-off we deserve. Production Design, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Criticize the Star Wars sequel trilogy all you want (especially this installment), but you have to concede that the production designers bring their A-games. The true magic of the Star Wars universe is how lived-in it feels, the sense that every run-down cantina, smuggler’s ship, or reappropriated Resistance base has its own long history that extends in both directions from the moment we’re seeing on the screen. The atmosphere conjured by the design work (especially in conjunction with John Williams’ iconic scores) is why Star Wars can always captivate, even if the narrative in this latest entry fails to evoke the same excitement as the films that have come before.