1. Backgammon – There are plenty of examples of people making movies based on their experience watching other movies rather than their actual experiences. The 90s thrived on such things. But it’s at least slightly more rare to find a movie based on someone watching too much philosophical spewing elitist theater.
The house in which it takes place is obviously some rich relative’s barely used summer home on the coast of Maine. So there is inherent production value. Despite this, Backgammon inexorably feels like a high school production. There are three of the worst performances you’ll ever see. There is an unshakable, uncomfortable feeling that everyone is playing someone much older than they actually are. And that it is all being manipulated by someone they have been conditioned to look up to, an infallible figure that is telling them that yes, this is definitely how you make a movie.
Abundant pretension is layered throughout every word that is spoken, to the point where you know they mean for some of it to be satire of such speech and thought, but it becomes so indistinguishable from anything else anyone says because nobody ever talks like a person ever would. So the caricature of a pretentious lout just seems like the most annoying person in a basket of annoying people.
It might seem as though hundreds of movies like Backgammon get made every year, and how could this one stand above (below) all or any of the others. But that’s because you are only reading about it. Watching it, or really, just listening to it, to what its supposed humans say to each other, seeing how someone in charge or maybe everyone involved thinks humans live, is nearly impossible to endure. There is never an interesting idea posited, a funny quip uttered, a pleasing acting choice or camera movement or lighting design. It is a thorough exhaustion of awful notions, all put together without once making any obvious technical mistake. It is terrible in conception rather than execution, which generally gets lumped in with a difference of opinion. Like not liking a Michael Moore movie simply because of its politics or a Quentin Tarantino one because of a fundamental opposition to violence. But somehow Backgammon forces its way past such subjective terms and emerges as the most neutrally forgettable production of the worst words ever assembled.
Reason to watch it anyway: Watch this guy forget how to use a towel because a camera is on him. He can’t stand in a doorway, he can’t sit at a table, he cannot even put a shirt on like a person anymore. That camera totally got in his head and never let go. If he was playing an alien trying desperately to fit in he might get an Oscar. But also the humans would have found him out and killed him by the third scene. So Best Supporting maybe.
2. The BFG – It’s difficult to discuss all the infinite flaws of The BFG without intoning Steven Spielberg’s name. But that runs the risk of letting it off the hook as simply his career worst. Clearly, as the 2nd worst movie of 2016, it is far worse than that.
I don’t know enough about Roald Dahl to speak on it, but maybe The BFG was also his career worst. It was far from his last work and he did write Matilda afterward, so at least, if there are connective lines to be drawn, they do not necessarily spell doom for Spielberg.
The blame matters little though, in a case such as this. Nothing is going to be learned. It’s not as though no one will allow Steven Spielberg to make another movie. Or could stop him. Nor will they be preventing any more Roald Dahl books from getting adapted. Maybe even by Steven Spielberg. This kind of lightning just couldn’t strike twice.
And here I’ve gone two paragraphs lamenting The BFG as the 2nd worst movie of 2016 without telling you why. It does seem beyond the point though. Maybe we should all just wallow in this terrible turn of events. Here, drink some of this bubbly liquid that totally will not turn the rest of the movie into a field of farts.
Reason to watch it anyway: This pains me to say, but there isn’t one. Even The Terminal has that living in the airport montage that is pure Spielbergian cinema. But this has nothing. Please don’t watch it. Allow yourself to remember Steven Spielberg for his relative masterworks like War Horse and 1941.
(John Williams does do the score so maybe there’s a reason to listen to it.)
3. Mercy – Netflix is pretty proud of its content, putting it front and center when you turn it on, making it play automatically if you take more than a second or two to read the description. And with all the stand up specials and Adam Sandler vehicles popping up, that isn’t going to work out most of the time. But certainly you wouldn’t want to dismiss it all out of hand. You’d miss great documentaries and confusingly entertaining episodic endeavors (previously know as television.)
And so I cannot dismiss it when they present one of the worst movies of the year, despite the fact that it never played in a theater, as far as I can tell. (Obviously, it didn’t deserve to, but that doesn’t generally stop anything.)
Mercy is never clear about what is happening, mostly because it wants to obscure its final twist, which is among the dumbest you’ve ever seen. Like, you might even suspect it while you are watching, but you will talk yourself out of it, because it is too dumb. Even now, after having read this, you will think well, maybe it could be that, he did say it was very dumb, but no, you will shake it off, because it is still too dumb. You’re ashamed for even considering it. But you are probably right. Because even in its ludicrous dumbness (something it is definitely not aware of) it isn’t all that mysterious. You’re more likely to be surprised because you checked out of paying any attention to the preceding dullness than any clever wrangling of plot points the movie has done for you. You’re even more likely to be surprised by anything that happens that you understand because so often the picture and sound are so muddled, you should probably rewind it if you want to know what’s going on, but not only will you not because you don’t care, you know if you did, it would still be basically unintelligible.
I’m sure Netflix has a very advanced formula for choosing the movies it not only makes available to us but for what it puts its name on. Turns out though, that even math is not infallible. Especially when it comes to poorly executed backdoor religious thrillers.
Reason to watch it anyway: It’s that guy who looks like a young Josh Brolin! It’s still weird, even though he isn’t playing young Josh Brolin, obviously. Just another career ruined by Labor Day.
4. Norm Of The North – In the beginning of Norm Of The North, Norm catches a seal and proceeds to tell it why he isn’t going to eat him. He explains that he can speak to humans. That he just instinctively started dancing like a human. And also seems to have grown a Walkman from his ears. Never mind that a polar bear that doesn’t eat will die. Never mind that the ‘human’ Norm speaks is English, with all the contemporary slang necessary to make jokes in kids’ movie these days. Never mind that all his friends and relatives speak the same language and yet ostracize Norm because of it. Never mind that Norm’s dancing, meant to give the human tourists a show, causes the humans to bring him out of the arctic and into society rather than flood the area with scientists and the media. Never mind all of these things. The only important thing to know about this story Norm is telling is that it puts the seal to sleep.
You could shrug most of this off by saying it’s a cartoon and for children and you just have to go along with it. But there are so many animated movies being released now and most of them do not feel the need to abandon all the usual things that govern movies and storytelling. They also aren’t content with some of the worst voice acting, the dullest visual style and the lazy meta half jokes in years. The world has stopped putting up with cartoons existing outside of the normal standards. Even Trolls and Angry Birds had more developed standards than this (to varying degrees of success.) There’s no reason to accept such garbage, whether you’re protecting the children or not.
Reason to watch it anyway: You miss Rob Schneider? I can understand that. It’s just this probably isn’t the way back. He does make one unbelievably homophobic joke that you won’t believe made it into the movie. And not because it’s funny.
5. The Darkness – It begins like the obligatory establishing scene for an amusement park ride. There’s sweeping shots of a beautiful location followed by painful exposition and cringy family dynamics. There’s even wasted star power meant to distract you from all the awful things they just have to fit into the few opening minutes.
But then there is no ride. There is just all of the same stuff minus the nice location. They are all transported to a generic suburbia where children are such jerks it takes a million years to determine whether it’s just their autism acting up or they are being possessed by vengeful indigenous spirits with incredibly dirty hands as weapons.
There is a lot of typical possession movie nonsense in the middle, but mostly that is botched as well, with lots of familial strife that ultimately means absolutely nothing because the Indians are just like “white people problems, yawn.” But you’re barely reminded of the origins of the spirits, since a Mexican mother-daughter team is dispatched to fight them, which probably only makes them more angry, but we’ll never know, that’s not something they’ll bother showing.
And in the end, the spirits cause their own demise as much as anyone beats them, creating a portal from the possessed kid’s bedroom directly to the one place they can be defeated. Turns out they just wanted their special rock collection back. Not like, revenge for genocide or anything. They even re-sheet rock the wall they burned on their way out.
Reason to watch it anyway: Paul Reiser is Kevin Bacon’s boss who is a terrible role model, coaxing Kevin Bacon into cheating on Radha Mitchell (yes, all these people were in this movie!) and just generally being a walking exaggeration until one lucid scene in a parking garage that is one of the best acted scenes you might have seen all year. Like actors might be learning this monologue for auditions, which might even work until they’d say what movie it was from and just get blank stares in return.
6. Beyond The Gates – At first glance, this might seem like the sort of movie that would be happy to be called one of the worst movies of the year. Its treacly neo-80s packaging appears to be celebrating that falsely ironic worship of select pieces of a period now distilled into squishy keyboard sounds.
But Beyond The Gates, while it does revel in those notions (as well as slightly more specific ones like low budget, shameless horror and VCRs) isn’t aware of its badness. Not entirely anyway. It really seems to think it is paying long overdue homage to VHS games, and then, somewhere down the line maybe, VHS in general. There is hardly a trace of irony involved, which is nice, but quickly forgotten when everything is handled so poorly. From the obvious (acting) to the obligatory (dialog idolizing VHS and lamenting its loss) to the obscure (you’re meant to get some thrill out of seeing Barbra Crampton speaking lifelessly from a 4:3 screen.)
There’s nothing to like about Beyond The Gates, except for maybe a passing hope for the notion behind it. Ultimately though, it can’t help but be awkward, plodding and devoid of any sense whatsoever. Just like the VCR games it is trying to honor.
Reason to watch it anyway: Chase Williamson seems content to employ his considerable (if not overwhelming) talents in unheralded niche quasi-horror movies. And perhaps this should have us appreciating him more than we would if he were just some mildly funny lab tech in anything of a grander scale. But it could make you sad that he’s wasting himself on such things, so this could really go either way.
7. Ice Age: Collision Course – There was a time when an Ice Age movie was a very promising entity. The first two are among the better animated features of the modern age. The third has dinosaurs. Then clearly something went wrong. You could make a great case for they just should have stopped there, but that isn’t quite enough of a justification and I think you know that.
I suppose it can never be fully explained what causes an otherwise fruitful franchise to crash out of the sky. But you can see the root of Ice Age: Collision Course’s problem right on its poster. “Kiss Your Ice Goodbye” it says. This ad line appeals to exactly no one. It’s not funny to the overtly intended audience of small children, in fact it may even repel their parents from bringing them in some cases, especially if they’ve been asked to explain it. It doesn’t appeal to the secondary audience of those parents for the same reasons. It doesn’t appeal to any adult unaffiliated with children because it’s a dumb joke that doesn’t really even make any sense in context of the movie. I mean, these characters have been supposedly dying out for more than a decade now, unless they are saying perhaps that this will be the final Ice Age, but that wouldn’t matter either, since we will never believe that if this does end up being the last installment, that it was anybody’s choice but the audience that never showed up for it.
Reason to watch it anyway: There’s a really good joke in one of the Scrat sequences, but that’s hardly surprising and you could just watch the trailer for it.
8. My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 – There wasn’t a lot to like about the first My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was mostly overwrought ethnic caricature, eye rolling and sighing and of course one note jokes where the punchline is a country of origin. The good news is all that is back again, even though its been fifteen years and those jokes were hopelessly old to begin with. But what little might have worked the first time around, namely the crux of the plot, the romance between Toula and Ian, is now a weird and awkward reunion of actors who don’t remember their parts, which is odd considering at least one of them was always supposed to essentially be playing herself. They don’t seem to have ever met before, never mind been married and living together and raising a child ever since.
The central joke this time of course is that Toula is the same as the rest of her family that tortured her all her life. We know this already though, as a result of the depressing-masquerading-as-joke ending of the first movie. Worse yet, Toula is back working at the family diner she struggled so strenuously to escape in the first movie. So not only is this Toula apparently meeting her husband again for the first time, she’s taken other steps backward in her life as well. You might think this is some kind of It’s A Wonderful Life parable playing out, showing Toula what would have happened if the events of the first movie didn’t transpire. It’s no wonder she’s taking all this out on her poor daughter Paris, who is rebelling a lot earlier and more effectively than Toula ever did.
The wedding in question this time is of Toula parents, who haven’t been married all this time due to a technicality, and so we are treated to a barrage of tired how terrible marriage is jokes from everyone, which I guess given the Toula/Ian situation are fairly warranted.
Reason to watch it anyway: Nat Wolff’s brother plays the daughter’s prom date and you can glimpse the same sort of thing that ought to have made both of them stars already. As if the Beatys and Fondas and Fannings didn’t already prove this to be genetic.
9. Darling – It’s much easier to identify when a movie fails if it’s trying to be a regular movie and can’t make that happen. You’ve seen Happy Feet, and while it’s weird and dumb and cloying and not good, it’s still better than most movies. You know Norm Of The North is worse because you’ve seen a bad version of the movie it is hoping to be, and it can’t even manage that much.
But when a movie isn’t making even the tiniest bit of sense, it sort of removes itself from the running of being labeled worst. It’s experimental maybe, so maybe it should exist on another plane. It doesn’t want any part of this one and can’t be judged alongside the pedestrian regular movies. You don’t even get it anyway. Only a few people will get it and this movie is for those few people. Except don’t call it a movie, please. Is what the people who made Darling would say. It doesn’t even want to be put on the same stratum of existence as those tedious comic book things or children’s nonsense built by Hollywood factories.
Unfortunately for Darling, it is a movie. It played in theaters right alongside other (most likely independent, but still traditional) fare and now it’s on Netflix right alongside The Hunger Games and Do Over. Unlike those things though, Darling is devoid of humor, of story and of anything remotely human. There is bulging eyes and non-sequitur screaming, there is a looming demon (I guess) and an unbroken cycle that suggests Darling could potentially go on forever. Or at least leaves room for endless pre and sequels. Thankfully, Darling will consider itself above such things.
Reason to watch it anyway: If you didn’t get enough of actors forgetting how to perform regular human tasks from Backgammon, Darling has some more for you, including one scene in which titular Darling doesn’t seem to know what water is.
10. Lights Out – I was already angry with Lights Out for stealing its title away from a movie that deserved it more and really could have used it: Don’t Breathe. So when it began shruggingly not awful I started to accept that I was being unfair to it.
But after that initial few minutes, the opening kill or however it is referred to in genre trope terms, Lights Out takes a precipitous dive into nothingness. And I don’t mean that as a metaphor, like a black hole of inept filmmaking. I mean literal nothingness, where a movie that has one idea refuses to take it beyond that initial opening. The thing that’s killing people never finds new ways of doing so. The people getting chased (but rarely ever killed) by it know the basic way to fight against it, but never come up with any new ways of combating it. In fact, mostly they are saved by accident.
Lights Out wants you not only to fill in its literal darkness for it, creating your own scary monster in the shadows before it ruins those notions by showing it to you anyway, it also wants you to conjure your own situations and resolutions. It gives you next to nothing. Like tossing you out into the wilderness with no food or clothes or tools and then expecting you to not only survive but to recreate society as you had come to know it. It is unreasonable and impossible and more than that, just plain annoying.
Reason to watch it anyway: There’s this one moment where somebody uses their key fob to turn some headlights on and temporarily get away from the shadow ghost or whatever and everyone in the theater went crazy for it. And it is good but using a key fob cannot be a movie’s crowning achievement. It only serves to remind you that nothing has happened and that the movie you are watching is totally uninterested in coming up with clever solutions or even clever problems.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ~ Out Of The Shadows – Racially stereotyped humanoid animals and disembodied brains are actually the highlights.
The Disappointments Room – Obvious jokes aside, because no one was expecting anything from this anyway.
Ratchet & Clank – There is so much death in this animated definitely for children’s movie and not the nice kind. So there’s even less reason than usual for it to be this excruciating.
Gods Of Egypt – Complaining about the whitewashing of this story is wrong because you just called it a story.
Dirty Grandpa – Put this cast together a thousand times and you wouldn’t get this bad a result ever again.