They weren’t the worst films of the year. They’re not even all bad. But boy, did they ever fall short of expectations.
Let’s face it, 2016 was a bummer and so were a lot of the films. It seemed like a lot of the projects that might have originally intrigued us let us down most of all. What follows is not a list of the worst films of 2016 – that article is still on the way. In fact, not all of the films mentioned here are bad. But the chasm between expectation and reality cannot go unnoticed.
So, let me present my picks for the Most Disappointing Films of 2016, in alphabetical order:
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – Several years ago, J.J. Abrams’ hype machine went into overdrive teasing a strange new movie, CLOVERFIELD. People were shocked that such a project could be kept completely under wraps. Clues started popping up on websites, adding to a mysterious mythology – little of which amounted to much in the final movie, but who cares? After all the hubbub. Still, several enjoyed it and those people have grown more vocal over the years.
Having said that, there really is no reason for CLOVERFIELD’s reputation to have improved as it is just as problematic now as it was then. Same goes for 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE in which people seemed to fall for the same tricks again, though this time without the labyrinthine website puzzles. But once you clear away the hype, what are we left with? We’re left with a decent, well-acted main storyline that is nonetheless more suited to a 45 minute episode in an anthology series than a feature film. That there wasn’t enough material there to sustain a full movie is made apparent when in the third act, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE changes identities completely in a bid for nostalgia most of us weren’t feeling in the first place.
The DIE HARD and HELLRAISER franchises saw later installments which originated as unrelated screenplays that were then haphazardly retooled into the worst entries of their series. So why give 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE a pass for doing the same thing? The main story is decent, but padded out way too much and that final switcheroo is a disaster.
31 – The time has long since passed when Rob Zombie established himself as a capable filmmaker. He’s had some hits and some misses. He’s been unafraid to take chances, which can lead to films like THE LORDS OF SALEM. I liked that one a lot, but it’s safe to say that a lot of Zombie’s core audience was not pleased. His biggest disappointment, even by his own reckoning was HALLOWEEN II. But even though that film ultimately didn’t work, Zombie did succeed in creating perhaps the most downbeat, depressing, strange and spiritual slasher sequel of the modern era. It was a failure, but a failure that tried to shape compromise into something original.
31 was crowd-funded on Kickstarter so you’d think that without a studio dictating to him, Zombie could spread his wings even further and attempt something even more experimental. But while 31 isn’t a terrible movie, it’s shocking just how pedestrian it all is. He gathered an amazing cast, all of whom simply do what is expected of them. I can’t imagine anyone making this without feeling they were somehow wasting their time. Sure, Richard Brake makes for a menacing villain, but it’s one obviously patterned after Bill Mosley’s character in Zombie’s first two features. Add in a pointless ending and you’ve got an unsatisfying experience from start to finish. 31 feels like a film made by an amateur trying to replicate what Zombie already did more than ten years ago.
ALLIED – While I don’t want Robert Zemeckis to return to his wilderness years in the Uncanny Valley of motion capture, his last few live-action films have not been all that impressive. That streak continues with ALLIED, featuring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as two undercover agents during World War II who fall in love and get married. Their relationship is tested when the wife is accused of being a spy and the husband is tasked with bringing her to justice. When you look at it, the plot is not completely dissimilar to MR. AND MRS. SMITH.
And just like that movie sparked the romance between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, ALLIED was rumored to do the same with its two stars. Anyone who saw the movie could safely put that rumor to bed however, because while both Pitt and Cotillard are talented actors, the chemistry between them is nonexistent. Instead, Zemeckis has everyone in the film continuously state how madly in love these two were, because we would never believe it just by looking at the two of them.
ALLIED mixed romance and World War II espionage and fumbled both. It wants to recall the classics of the 1940s but instead plays like a cheap, wooden melodrama from that era. By the time things get moving in the third act, it’s too late.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – No, BATMAN V SUPERMAN isn’t the worst film of the year. But it was the most soul-crushing in both execution and in how it failed to meet even the most meager expectations. It’s not a good movie, but in many ways it is the perfect way to usher in Trump’s America, giving us a glimpse of a world in which no one is allowed to do good for its own sake. It’s a superhero movie without heroes. On one side, you have a psychotic fascist with unlimited capital waging an obsessive and murderous war against a reluctant godlike populist who mopes around and saves lives out of resentful obligation. It’s a bleak, overlong, overindulgent slog that would work as its own work of art if it weren’t so busy world building or wallowing in its own sense of importance.
No special powers can weld the plot holes in this one and all the spectacle in the world can’t cover up the boneheaded plot points. Lex Luthor annoyingly chirps his way through a complicated, ridiculous masterplan that would seem like random desperation if we weren’t continually assured otherwise. Perry White browbeats his reporters for acting on actual news stories. Nuclear strikes are launched without a moment’s hesitation. Things just get worse and worse, leaving Wonder Woman to show up for fifteen minutes and attempt to clean up the boys’ mess.
BLAIR WITCH – We had no idea this was coming. What a great surprise! Two talented filmmakers have made a new BLAIR WITCH film. Except they didn’t. They remade the old one, with better technology, more attractive actors and a seeming misunderstanding about what made the original so memorable in the first place. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this film and it won’t be the last.
THE CONJURING 2 – Since I don’t want to be on the hit list of every true believer who thinks there are literal demons in our midst, let me put it as mildly as possible and say Ed and Lorraine Warren probably aren’t as genuine as they seem. However, their alleged experiences did make for fine material in James Wan’s excellent horror film, THE CONJURING.
Fortunately for Hollywood producers, the Warrens have tons of case files and since Hollywood can typically fudge the facts on even documented occurrences, there is probably enough material to keep sequels in production for a couple of decades. Unfortunately, THE CONJURING 2 goes far overboard in abiding by the sequel maxim that the stakes be raised exponentially. Hence, we open up with the long-discredited Amityville haunting, then move onto the case of the Enfield poltergeist (called “the British Amityville” by several unimaginative writers) and then get a ridiculous newly invented Big Bad producers can bring out whenever they see fit. It also ramps up the religious mumbo jumbo a great deal. Religious-based warfare against demonic forces can make for great filmmaking, as has been proven in the classic THE EXORCIST. THE CONJURING 2 is not as intelligent with this material and at times, it feels as though it’s a horror film as imagined by Jack Chick.
Fortunately, James Wan is still talented enough to make some intriguing choices, which he does in an absolutely riveting interview scene. But this is a poor follow-up to such an amazing first entry, and expectations for THE CONJURING 3 are now greatly diminished.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN – Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the most brilliant pulp writers of all time, which his character Tarzan standing out like a giant in the format. Whenever a live-action film featuring the character is announced, my interest is peaked. And there was every reason to believe this latest one would be a real winner. It had a talented director in HARRY POTTER’s David Yates. The cast was exceptional, from Alexander Skarsgård’s Lord Greystoke to the villainous turn by Christoph Waltz.
But when it was all over, I found myself puzzled. I had just watched a Tarzan movie in which an entire jungle full of elephants, zebras and all forms of animal life had destroyed a port. And yet, I didn’t care. I left feeling wholly unimpressed. The script seemed flat even though the basic story wasn’t. The gorgeous cinematography could not hide every phoned-in decision. Motion capture creatures and digital effects parade their way across the screen for two hours and the time has long since past when that alone was enough to impress. Samuel L. Jackson is wasted in a role where he didn’t seem to be trying at all.
A few years ago, Hollywood demonstrated an inability to create something worthwhile from Burroughs’ John Carter novels – something which should have been relatively simple from a storytelling standpoint. And now, it seems they’ve forgotten how to do Tarzan justice as well.
PASSENGERS – There was a way to tell the problematic story in PASSENGERS, but this wasn’t it. When it was released, audiences were shocked to discover the twist in this story of two interstellar travelers who find themselves awakened from a cryogenic slumber ninety years ahead of schedule. They really shouldn’t have been. The so-called “twist” was described in the film’s synopsis as it was going into production. That is why I was surprised to hear PASSENGERS would take a lighthearted tone with quite a bit of humor. Considering there is such a monstrous undercurrent to the material, this was an odd and ultimately catastrophic choice.
I can only assume the script read better than what we wound up with on screen. It’s the only reason I can think of for why Jennifer Lawrence would agree to see this project through to the end. The film seems plagued by a series of compromises and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out most of these were instituted after everyone had signed on the dotted line. PASSENGERS is not romantic, nor exciting, nor thought-provoking. It’s mildly interesting thanks mainly to the cast, but then winds up having unintentionally creepy vibe by hiding its major conceit under layers of glitz and half-assed justifications.
REGRESSION – REGRESSION should have been great. It marked the return of Alejandro Amenábar after an absence of seven years. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, just know that he directed some of the greatest films of the 2000’s – OPEN YOUR EYES, THE OTHERS and THE SEA INSIDE. This time, he was tackling a subject which should have allowed him to access his talent for atmospheric horror and heavy drama.
The Satanic Panic of the 1980s, horrifying cases of ritual abuse and the controversial use of certain forms of psychiatric therapy are just a few of the themes touched upon here. But everything starts out on a sour note and never stops being ridiculous. A talented cast tries to keep things afloat, but REGRESSION is just never able to make itself credible. A big letdown.
RULES DON’T APPLY – Speaking of big letdowns, disappointment doesn’t come much greater than RULES DON’T APPLY. If you go back even as far as the 1970s and 80s, you can read interviews in which Warren Beatty talks about his ambition to direct a film about Howard Hughes. And if you think that’s a bit out of his depth, go look at what Beatty did with his masterpiece REDS. And now Beatty returns, after a fifteen year hiatus from acting and an eighteen year hiatus from directing, bringing us his Howard Hughes film at last…. and this is the mess we’re left with.
Much like MELVIN AND HOWARD, the focus really isn’t on Hughes. Instead, we focus on two thoroughly uninteresting leads in a bid for an old-fashioned love story. Only then it really does become about Howard Hughes and Beatty to his credit is the best thing in RULES DON’T APPLY by a country mile. After that, it then becomes this dark story about paranoia and selling ones soul, until it decides to switch gears yet again and try to be the film we started out with. The script is constantly starting us on one path, only to second-guess itself and change its entire approach. And through it all, there is exactly one interesting story from the myriad of choices RULES DON’T APPLY gives us. That is the most obvious one, the story of Howard Hughes in his declining years. But the film keeps shifting the focus away like Lucy pulling away the football.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case if any one of the characters were interesting. Lily Collins deserves some credit for trying to breathe life into her stale screen ingenue character, but the rest of the cast aren’t so lucky. All throughout the film, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was watching these boring people. And I mourned the idea that a fascinating project forty years in the making wound up being such an insubstantial puff of smoke.